After a six-month layoff, Russell Westbrook looked a lot like his old self.
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The All-Star point guard had 21 points and seven assists as the Oklahoma City Thunder, despite shooting 2 of 18 from 3-point range, beat the Phoenix Suns 103-96 on Sunday night.
Kevin Durant had 33 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder, who won their fifth straight home opener and defeated Phoenix (2-1) for the 11th straight time. The Suns last beat Oklahoma City (2-1) in December 2010.
Westbrook, sidelined after first tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee during the second game of the NBA playoffs, then having a medical setback, returned three to five weeks ahead of the team’s previously announced timetable. He said before the game he never thought it would take him that long to come back.
After the game he said he felt a little rusty but seemed satisfied with his effort.
”I just missed some easy ones but that will come,” Westbrook said. ”I’m able to do what I want. I could be better but that’s all right. That’s expected. I’m not expected to come back and be bionic man. I’m just going to work my way through it.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks came away impressed with Westbrook’s outing.
”There are two things that (Westbrook) does at a high level,” Brooks said. ”He wins. He’s a winner. The guy plays the game like it’s supposed to be played. It’s not always going to be perfect but he plays with everything he has every single night. To me that’s inspiring. The second thing is leadership. It’s taken him some time to get that . Now he is our leader.”
Brooks wasn’t as glowing about the team’s shooting.
”Obviously, we’ve got to shoot the ball much better,” he said. ”We can’t continue to shoot that from the 3-point line. I don’t like to talk about it much but it’s hard to hide 2 for 18. But I will say this – I believe in the guys taking shots. They’re getting good looks. . They’re going to fall.”
Eric Bledsoe scored 26 points – one off his career high – and added a career-best 14 assists for Phoenix, which opened the season with home wins over Portland and Utah. The Suns stayed with Oklahoma City thanks to 14-of-37 3-point shooting but eventually were done in by 23 turnovers.
Serge Ibaka added nine points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City.
Phoenix led 79-73 after a 3-pointer by Bledsoe with 7:46 left, but the Thunder scored next eight points, including layups by Westbrook and Reggie Jackson, the latter putting Oklahoma City ahead 81-79 with 6:11 left.
Channing Frye’s basket tied the game for Phoenix, but the Thunder went on a 14-6 run, highlighted by three-point plays from Ibaka and Derek Fisher, to take a 95-87 lead with 2:19 left.
The Suns pulled within 95-92 before Durant slammed home a missed layup by Westbrook with 32.8 seconds left. Gerald Green hit a 3-pointer from the corner to cap a 21-point performance, but Westbrook and Durant combined to go 6-of-6 from the free throw line over the final 29.3 seconds to seal the win.
”Our guys fought hard and that’s a good team and we had a chance to win on their court, so I’m pretty happy with the effort,” Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said.
”That’s the ultimate goal, when you go on the road, is to have a chance at the end, especially a team like this. It’s very difficult to win in this gym. We were right there and had some chances.”
Westbrook’s action was his first since April, when Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley banged knees with him while going for a steal after Westbrook had stopped to call a timeout.
Westbrook underwent an initial surgery for the injury on April 27. He underwent another surgery on Oct. 1 to remove a loose stitch from the first procedure. At the time, the Thunder said he would miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season. Under that timetable, Westbrook could have been out for as many as 22 games.
Instead, he missed only two games – a win at Utah on Wednesday and a loss at Minnesota on Friday.
Usually the first player announced during pre-game introductions, Westbrook instead was the last and he drew an enormous roar from the sellout crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena. A team spokesman said after the game that Durant – who usually is introduced last – asked that Westbrook be announced last instead, although Durant declined to take credit for the idea when asked about it.
”It was good for him to be back,” Durant said. ”I know how much he loves the game. The crowd was great. Unbelievable. Classy group of fans. Always behind (Westbrook) and accepted him so well tonight. It was cool to see.”
Westbrook immediately returned to his aggressive self on the court, scoring his first basket at the 7:16 mark of the first quarter on a driving layup.
It quickly became apparent, however, that the Thunder will have to readjust to having Westbrook in the lineup. Oklahoma City struggled with its shooting in the first half, going 16 of 40 (40 percent) and allowing the Suns to lead 45-44 at halftime.
Frye scored 19 points and Goran Drajic had 10 for the Suns on 5-of-9 shooting before leaving the game with a sprained left ankle at the 10:08 mark of the third quarter.
The Thunder shot 42.7 percent from the field (35 of 82) but went 31 of 37 from the free throw line (83.8 percent).