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Westbrook’s Return Immediately Impacts OKC Thunder

That sigh of relief you hear is the Thunder’s collective response to the return of Russell Westbrook.

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What started as excited chatter last week swelled to thunderous cheering in Oklahoma City when Russell Westbrook returned to the court a couple days ago. Projected to miss four to six weeks after fracturing his hand in the second game of the season, he made his return in exactly 30 days.

When it became clear he was indeed returning on the early side of projections, Westbrook shared his thoughts about finally resuming his season.

“I’m just excited to get back to my game routine,” Westbrook said. “Go home, take my nap, normal stuff that I usually do to get myself prepared for a game. You kind of miss all that stuff when you sit down on the side in suits.

“I’m going to take all my suits to the cleaners, then pick them up at the end of the season.”

Westbrook’s impact in 23:48 minutes was immediate, leading the Thunder to a much-needed win against the New York Knicks (105-78). His stat line was off the charts; in fact, he entered the record books as the first player in the shot-clock era to post 32 points and eight assists in 24 or fewer minutes. He also added seven rebounds and went three-of-four in three-pointers and five-of-seven at the foul line.

The team was jubilant following the win, as evidenced by Reggie Jackson bum-rushing Westbrook’s live on-court interview to say, “Whatever you been sipping on to get back to the way you’ve been playing, I need some of that. Man! He was special tonight.”

When Westbrook got his chance to speak, he was asked how it felt to be back leading this team.

“It felt good,” he responded with a smile. “I was able to keep my legs for the high pace. It was good to get back on the floor, get back in a groove, so it felt great.”

This team has been plagued with injuries, which explains their 5-12 record. At one point, a total of eight Thunder players were sidelined. Things are looking up though, with Kevin Durant (foot) expected to make his season debut soon – perhaps even by next week. Rookie Mitch McGary (foot) should follow suit very soon as he just appeared in an Oklahoma City Blue D-League game. The only player with an unknown return date is Perry Jones III (knee).

There are a couple positive things to recognize when looking at Oklahoma City’s dismal record. First, many games with the depleted roster have been close ones. And second, despite the poor offensive effort, the Thunder’s defense is ranked fifth in the league. They’ve been able to keep opponents to an average 93.2 points per game. Only three teams – San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies – have better numbers. That’s a definite silver lining.

“Even though our record doesn’t show it, in most games, our defense has been there,” Kendrick Perkins said. “I think that’s our key.”

Now the race is on to collect wins and make sure the team is playoff-bound. Westbrook said the win in his return game was especially significant.

“(It’s) very important,” he said. “I think it gives us a sense of confidence. We’ve got to have a sense of urgency to come out and take care of our business.”

And how does one ensure confidence and urgency are maintained at high levels?

“Just playing our game,” Westbrook replied. “That’s how we play. That’s nothing special, it’s just how we play basketball. We play like that every night, we put ourselves in position to win games.”

Most would disagree and say his performance was the very definition of the word “special.”

“No,” he insists. “Just come out and try to play. I’m just thankful and blessed to be able to play basketball on the floor again. It was a good game.”

“Russell back made a huge difference,” Nick Collison said. “He just pushes the ball, and everyone has to keep up with him. He picks up our pace. I thought he played incredible. Just the style, the way he was coming off finding people. When he plays like that, we’re tough to beat. It’s great to have him back.

“In the past, even when we were winning, we always wanted to try to have the urgency to try to get our level of play to where it needed to be to try to win a championship. Now it’s different; we’re in a hole with wins and losses, so obviously we need wins. It might be a little easier to preach that and for all us to remember that because of where our record’s at, but it’s definitely important. We need to try to win every game and be ready to play every night.”

The Thunder haven’t been in this boat before; that is, without their starting point guard and MVP/scoring leader for such a long stretch. With their offense currently ranked 29th in the league, supporters are eager to welcome back their superstars. Teammate Steven Adams explained why Westbrook makes it easier for everybody offensively.

“Just his competitive nature and just how intense he is,” Adams said. “He’s a really good leader. Just real encouraging. Tough love, in a tough way, but he’s encouraging.”

“The great ones make their teammates better,” head coach Scott Brooks said. “And Russell is a great player. His determination and his ability to impact winning is reflected on what he throws out there every night.”

Back in the locker room, Westbrook described what it meant to return to the game he loves.

“Now I’ve got the opportunity to go out there and hear my name called,” Westbrook said. “You never want to take that for granted. Never, anytime. I was just hyped to be able to hear my name and run out onto the floor.”

Not surprisingly, the crowd jumped to their feet and yelled wildly when Westbrook was introduced in the starting lineup.

“It was amazing,” Westbrook said. “The crowd, like I always say, is the best crowd in all sports. They do an amazing job of helping me out, and I’m pretty sure it helps a lot of guys on our team as well.”

Once they get to the point when Durant’s name is called along with Westbrook’s, the Thunder will officially be back in business.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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