HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Russell Westbrook picked a heck of a game to make his return.
The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard has been cleared to play Thursday night for the first time since Christmas Day against the revenge-minded and LeBron James-fueled Miami Heat on TNT (8 p.m. ET). It was just three weeks ago that Durant and the Thunder, minus Westbrook, torched the Heat on their turf. As of Wednesday, Westbrook is officially listed as a game-time decision.
OKC stunned the league in the weeks without Westbrook, climbing to the top of the Western Conference behind Durant’s magnificent performances that have vaulted him ahead of James to the top of the MVP race. Now the Thunder will be whole again for the first time since Westbrook underwent a third surgery to his right knee after Christmas.
“You have to worry about one superstar and then you bring in another,” James said Tuesday night after scoring a season-high 42 points, his first 40-point venture of the season, in a win at Dallas.
Between Westbrook’s anticipated return and another showdown between the game’s two biggest stars, Miami-OKC, a potential NBA Finals preview, is must-watch TV.
“Is it a statement game?” James asked rhetorically. “It’s not a statement….we don’t need to make a statement. We want to continue to play at a high level like we have been playing.”
It could be good timing for the Heat to keep their momentum flowing. Since losing to the Thunder on Jan. 29, Miami’s reeled off six of seven, including three in a row, with James reminding all that until further notice he is the four-time MVP with averages in those seven games of 30.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 7.6 apg. The lone hiccup came at Utah during an otherwise sparkling, 4-1 all-Western Conference trip bridging the All-Star break. The road finally ends in OKC.
Now they’ll get a Thunder team in their first game after the break and back in adjustment mode, working in their three-time All-Star point guard with their do-it-all superstar, a talented crew of role players that have stepped up big. Thunder coach Scott Brooks called Westbrook’s impending return a “time for sacrifice.”
“When Russell comes back, there’s roughly 35 minutes that have to be taken away from players,” Brooks said. “There’s going to be shots that are going to have to be taken away, there’s going to be fourth-quarter minutes that are going to be taken away from players. But when you give players minutes, it’s not easy to relinquish the minutes, it’s not easy. It’s a lot easier if it’s a one- or two-game sample size. They’ve had a big chunk of the season with a lot of extra minutes. There’s going to be sacrifices, everybody. KD’s going to have to continue to make sacrifices, Russell, Reggie [Jackson], Jeremy [Lamb], but we have a team that does that.”
There will be scrutiny, too, instantaneous and often irrational if the Thunder — 20-7 during this stretch without Westbrook — slip. Critics will pounce if Westbrook is perceived to be shooting too much or stalling the offense or generally getting in the way of Durant’s MVP path, one that would prevent James from becoming the first three-peat MVP since Larry Bird some 30 years ago.
The easy-going, eager-to-serve Durant, as usual, brushed off any concern of being able to put it all back together on the fly with his partner of six seasons now.
“I don’t think it will be too much of an adjustment,” Durant said. “He’s a dog, man, you just got to let him go out there and be him. He has great intentions, he’s a team first guy, so it’s going to work. I’m excited to have him back and I know he’s excited to play again. We’ve just got to ease him into it a little bit. He’s been out 31 games, I think, so just make sure his body is right and his stamina is up, he’s a high-energy guy.”
Through his unexpected absence, Brooks effectively utilized his young bench, starting Jackson at the point as he did in the playoffs after Westbrook went down. Second-year swingman Jeremy Lamb, who came over from Houston in the James Harden deal and watched from the bench last season, has emerged as an effective sixth man and rookie center Steven Adams and second-year forward Perry Jones have been solid contributors.
Now Jackson will run the point with the second unit, and at times play with Durant and Westbrook, who was averaging 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and 6.0 rpg before he went down. Through it all, OKC is the lone team to rank in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency. In December, when they really got things rolling with Westbrook, the Thunder ranked in the top three in both categories and No. 1 in defensive rating.
And in January, as the Thunder kept rolling and Durant kept soaring and stealing the headlines, James, the four-time MVP and reigning two-time champion was taking notice, subtly, and not-so-subtly dropping hints that he’s watching it all.
As Westbrook returns, his best basketball might be a bit down the road, but for tonight it only adds to the tantalizing intrigue of this final regular-season showdown between two mesmerizing MVP candidates who can only meet again in June.