The Oklahoma City Thunder still have not quite cracked the Western Conference playoff picture after wading through the first part of the season without Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Both superstars are now back and may finally share the court for an entire game Friday night when Oklahoma City hosts the Washington Wizards.
Westbrook should enter Friday’s contest well rested after he earned two technical fouls and a game ejection in the first half of Wednesday’s 137-134 overtime win against Phoenix.
Westbrook’s early exit allowed Durant to solely operate the offense in his first game since suffering a sprained right ankle on Dec. 18, and he made the most of the opportunity, scoring a season-high 44 points.
"You know, I didn’t even realize he had 44 points," coach Scott Brooks said. "That just tells you what kind of a leader he is. He just kept everybody in the right place mentally and on the court."
Even in limited time, Westbrook still finished as the Thunder’s second-leading scorer with 20 points, continuing his string of masterful performances this season. The point guard is averaging a career high in points (27.6) and according to his teammates, has played at an elite level on the defensive end as well.
"He’s been locked in for longer stretches," Nick Collison said. "Just his basic defense, starting with pressuring the ball and staying in front of his man and being in the right spots – he’s been a lot more consistent with that, and I think that’s part of maturing for him and realizing how important it is for him to play both ends."
Whether Westbrook’s next-level play has come courtesy of an increased role with Durant on the bench or simply genuine improvement has yet to be fully realized considering that the two stars have played only eight full games together, seven of which were victories for Oklahoma City (16-17).
Washington (22-9) will counter with a superstar of its own in John Wall, whose scoring production has slowed in recent games. He managed just 11 points Tuesday in the Wizards’ 114-87 loss at Dallas.
That snapped a three-game win streak for Washington, which has committed 44 turnovers in the last two games – eight by Wall.
"This was one of (those games) where we just got beat handedly from the beginning," Wall said. "It’s one of those ones you’re frustrated about, but take two days off and prepare for OKC."
With their most recent performance as no exception, the Wizards’ success this season has not consistently carried into matchups with the league’s top competition. Against teams currently at .500 or better, Washington is 6-7 and has averaged 95.8 points, compared with 103.3 points per game against below .500 opponents.
The Wizards have never won in Oklahoma City, losing all five visits since the team relocated from Seattle for the 2008-09 season.
They did, however, take the most recent matchup with the Thunder, 96-81 on Feb. 1. Wall had 17 points and 15 assists in that game and Durant scored 26 while Westbrook was sidelined.