By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS – Russell Westbrook returned to action Tuesday night for the first time since his knee scare four nights earlier in Toronto. He remains on a minutes restriction, up to 32 a game, a precaution he’s not yet sure will be lifted once the playoffs start in little more than three weeks.
“I’m not sure,” Westbrook said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks. “Once I talk to the doctors, the coaches and the people I I need to talk to about that, then we’ll figure it out.”
What is known is that coming off three surgeries in eight months, and with Friday night’s collision with Raptors guard Kyle Lowry reminding him of his vulnerability, Westbrook is embracing the bigger picture.
“I feel great, but it ain’t about this year,” Westbrook said. “I’m 25 years old, you know? It’s not all about right now. You got to think about the future. I can’t just think about what’s going on right now. I’m still young, I’m trying to play as long as I can.”
Westbrook’s knee nightmare started 11 months ago in the first round of the playoffs when Rockets guard Patrick Beverley careened into him, tearing the meniscus in Westbrook’s right knee and ending his season. He underwent surgery to repair the meniscus days later and then required two subsequent, and unexpected arthroscopic procedures, one coming days before the start of training camp and another two days after he put up a triple-double at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day.
The latest setback kept him out until Feb. 20. Tuesday’s 129-118 overtime loss to the Mavs was the first time since his return that he logged more than 31 minutes. He played 33, but Thunder coach Scott Brooks, in order to adhere to the minutes restriction, sat Westbrook for the first 2:57 of overtime. OKC fell behind 120-113 before he checked in.
Westbrook has averaged 26.3 minutes in the 12 games he played prior to Tuesday night. His career average is 34.0 mpg and he averaged 38.4 mpg in the 2011-12 playoffs when OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. Along with the minutes restriction, which has been bumped up from 25-26 minutes initially to 30-32, Westbrook will continue to be held out of one game of back-to-back situations.
That leaves Westbrook available for eight of the Thunder’s final 11 games. OKC wraps up the regular season on April 16 and will open the first round at home that weekend. How the team will handle his minutes at that point, Brooks said, is not yet a significant part of the discussion.
“I haven’t really focused on a lot of that because there’s plenty of time for us to talk about that,” Brooks said. “We’re just focusing on what we have in place and that’s just the regular season. We’ve had some small discussions about what we’re going to do moving forward, but right now we haven’t really locked up anything.”
Both times Westbrook has returned from surgery this season, he’s seemingly picked up where he left off. If he’s lacked any speed or explosion, it’s been impossible to tell. He’s never allowed the recovery process to create a mental hurdle or slow his full-throttle style. He continues to attack the basket with reckless abandon.
“It’s just my mindset, how I think, how I get myself going,” Westbrook said. “I just think to myself, go out and try to compete, that’s it, go out and help my team win. I know when I’m on the floor my only thing is go out and play hard and try to win.”
Since his return after the All-Star break, he’s averaged 21.0 points, 7.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds. His shooting percentages — 45.2 overall and 41.3 from beyond the arc — are higher than his overall shooting percentages.
“I mean, I’ve been confident,” Westbrook said. “The training staff and the rehab that I’ve done has put me in a great spot to be able to come out and perform at a high level, how I want to perform. So I have confidence in my knee; just have to go out there and play and let the rest take care of itself.”
Westbrook acknowledged that the incident Friday at Toronto put a scare in him. As soon as it happened, he grimaced, grabbed his knee and slammed the basketball to the floor, an emotional display that was eerily similar to the night he went down in the Houston series. He was helped off the floor by a teammate and head trainer Joe Sharpe and did not return. Immediately, the worst was feared. By the game’s end, he was feeling more confident that he was OK, but wasn’t fully confident until getting the results of the MRI taken the next day.
“I was just scared and wanted to know what was going on,” Westbrook said.
Before Tuesday’s game against Dallas, he was asked what his mindset is now as he suited up for his first game since getting his knee knocked.
“Kill,” Westbrook said. “That’s my mindset from now on.”