OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Miami Heat had plenty of trouble with the Oklahoma City Thunder last time the teams met.
They might have even more to deal with this time around.
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook made it through a full practice Wednesday for the first time since his most recent surgery, just in time for Thursday’s rematch with the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. The ultra-athletic Westbrook’s presence could be a game changer for a team that already has the NBA’s best record.
His return nearly overshadows the usual hype that goes with matchups between Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Miami’s LeBron James.
"It’s like trading for an All Star at the trade deadline," said Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer. "We’re looking forward to it. We’re definitely excited for him to get back."
Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, has missed 27 games since having a procedure on Dec. 27 to deal with swelling in his injured right knee – the third operation on it in nine months. Coach Scott Brooks wouldn’t make a definitive statement on Westbrook’s status for Thursday’s game, but talked at length about the way team dynamics would change upon his return.
"I thought he had a good practice today," Brooks said. "We went pretty hard, no question. We did a lot of things in transition, we did a lot of halfcourt. We did a lot of defensive drills, and he was able to participate in all of our drills."
Westbrook sat out on Jan. 29, when the Thunder overcame an early 18-point deficit to roll past the Heat 112-95. The Heat fully expect Westbrook to play this time.
"It’ll be one of our biggest challenges of the regular season," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "Anytime we play them (is a challenge), especially now, after losing to them at home. And bringing in Westbrook, you’re bringing in a dynamic player at home, where they play very well. We’re going to have to play as close to flawless as we can to beat this team."
Westbrook was playing well before his latest issue. He had a triple-double by the middle of the third quarter in a Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks – the last time he played. He has averaged 21.3 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 25 games for the Thunder this season.
"With Russell coming back, it adds a dynamic player on both ends of the floor," Brooks said. "Russell doesn’t get enough credit for this, but his defensive toughness and his ability to get to the free-throw line – those are the things that we like in addition to all the other things that he brings."
Durant has reached a new level since Westbrook’s injury, averaging 35.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists during that stretch as the Thunder won 20 of 27 games. Brooks said Westbrook has played so many games with the team over the years that he doesn’t see him fitting back in as an issue.
Miami will be playing the final of a six-game road trip. The Heat have won three straight and four of five while trying to chase down the Indiana Pacers for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
It’ll be difficult for the Heat to close the trip out right against a Thunder squad that has a 23-3 home record. Durant dominated Miami in the previous meeting, posting 33 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Though James scored 34 points that night, Durant played well in one-on-one situations against him. Durant’s exceptional recent run and his showing in the last matchup with James makes Thursday’s game one of the most anticipated of the season.
Oklahoma City could sweep the regular-season series with Miami and Durant could strengthen his case for a first MVP award with another strong performance against James, who has won the honor four of the past five years.
Durant said he’s not putting extra meaning into the game.
"It’s not a championship game," he said. "It’s not a deciding game in the playoffs. This game is not going to get us into the playoffs or knock us out. This doesn’t really decide anything. It’s a regular-season game. If we try to go into this game thinking about it too much, focusing on it too much and making it bigger than it is, we’re going to come out a little too tense and not play our game."