OKLAHOMA CITY — The All-Star break is over and the Thunder are set for what could be their most-significant week of the year.
Russell Westbrook, the schedule and the trade deadline. All are major issues. Here’s a look at how all three will play out for OKC in the next few days.
1. He plays when?
We’re about to find out if Kevin Durant’s diagnosis/prediction is true.
Durant, in an interview with Bill Simmons of Grantland.com and ESPN said Westbrook would be back and ready to go Thursday against Miami in Oklahoma City. The game vs. the Heat is the first one for the Thunder after the break.
Now, coach Scott Brooks and Thunder officials have said Westbrook should be ready to come back after the All-Star break, but no one has ever given an exact timetable. The fact that Durant broke the news is part surprising and part refreshing, as this kind of information is usually offered via a team press release, not organically from the face of the franchise.
No one from the Thunder, aside from Durant, has commented on Westbrook’s return, so there’s still a chance Westbrook wouldn’t be on the court Thursday against the Heat. Then again, if that’s true, why would Durant offer up the information?
According to Brooks, Westbrook has not participated in a full, team practice, but has done some shooting before and after practice. Westbrook has not played since Dec. 25 when he had a triple-double against the Knicks.
The Thunder have what amounts to be a five-game lead in the Western Conference. Naturally, having Westbrook back will make the Thunder better, but the need to bring him back against Miami is unnecessary. However, if he’s ready, he’s ready. Westbrook won’t be eased back into the lineup, he’ll be a starter, so while it seems like a good idea for him to take it easy, don’t count on that being the case.
2. Who goes there?
The Thunder are off until Thursday, which is an extended break, and they get back into the season with a five-game homestand.
Sure, there’s not too much excitement with Charlotte, Cleveland and the 76ers coming to town, but the first two games out of the break against Miami and the Clippers are good draws.
We all know about Miami, but the Clippers are playing well. They have won three in a row, including a win over Portland in the last game before the break, and are just two games out of second place in the Western Conference. If the season ended today, the Clippers and the Thunder would possibly matchup in the semifinals.
DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are much improved and Chris Paul is one of the best point guards in the league. Meanwhile, the rivalry between Griffin and Ibaka is real and it’s not pretty, dating back to last season when the two scuffled. It happened again this year, too. Don’t forget, the Clippers’ Matt Barnes was involved, too. He didn’t play in the second meeting between the two teams this year in Oklahoma City.
The teams have split their two games and still have two to go.
3. Who comes here?
You’ve heard about Aaron Afflalo from Orlando and Greg Monroe from Detroit possibly being pieces the Thunder might acquire, and everyone from Russell Westbrook to Jeremy Lamb and Kendrick Perkins have been mentioned as players who could get shipped. But don’t expect anything to come of it.
The trade deadline is Thursday afternoon but the Thunder don’t need to feel the pressure to make a move because they have one ready to go â Westbrook returning. OKC has built up a five-game lead in the Western Conference and done it for the most part without Westbrook, showing the team is good enough to win for long periods of time without adding anyone.
Sure, OKC is one of the few teams that could win a title, so it’s tempting to want to tinker with the roster, lineup and everything in between, but with Westbrook returning â maybe as soon as Thursday â the team as it is now should be in good enough shape to earn the top spot in the conference.
Instead of a trade, look for the Thunder to work on getting Westbrook back into form this last part of the season instead of the Thunder working on getting another player.