Westbrook, Durant Confident Entering Season
Hold on to your seats, NBA fans, the return of professional basketball is right around the corner.
At the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Media Day the topic du jour was, of course, the status of Russell Westbrook. Thunder general manager Sam Presti recently confirmed that the Thunder’s starting point guard, last seen on crutches in the postseason, may not be cleared to play by the season opener.
Westbrook was asked that question directly.
“I’m not sure,” Westbrook said. “I just know that I wake up in the morning, get to my rehab, then go back to sleep and do it all over again. I’m just taking it one day at a time and try not to look ahead. When something like this happens, you have to take it slow. There’s no need for me to rush into looking ahead at the schedule.”
Westbrook currently holds the longest active streak of regular season games played in the NBA. Is that record destined to end?
“I haven’t missed a game,” Westbrook said. “It’s not just because I don’t want to miss a game. It’s because if I feel like I can play and I’m able to do what I need to do to help my team win, then I’ll always play.”
While he may miss some games in the early-going, it appears his return isn’t too far away.
“I’m on the court doing some spot-shooting, just trying to get my rhythm back,” Westbrook disclosed. “On the first day of training camp, I’ll be on the floor.
“I can’t give you a line of things I do working out, but I can run, I can shoot, I can dribble,” he added, noting his state of mind is “positive.”
“[Westbrook] will participate in some of our practices,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “In the last 24 hours, he had a little bit of swelling that we will monitor.”
Westbrook suffered his season-ending knee injury in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Houston Rockets. The Thunder ended up winning that series (4-2), but was eliminated in the semifinals (4-1) versus the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Well, it was different for us, that postseason playing without Russ,” shared superstar Kevin Durant about the experience. “Russ is like the heart and soul of our team and the leader off the floor. I’m not making excuses at all; I’m just saying it was a little different without him. Guys stepped up, and I think that’s the good thing you can take away from it.
“Last year’s over. We can’t go back to it. We can’t change anything.”
Center Kendrick Perkins explained how the loss of Westbrook affected him and the team.
“We learned not to take people for granted,” Perkins stated. “You never know until they’re gone what you’re missing out of certain individuals. I’m not just talking about Russell going on a tear and scoring 30 points and dishing out ten assists, I’m talking about all the other little things that he brings to the table. Russell gives our team swag. He gives me swag. I feed off of him.
“I know this, if I’m on the court and I’ve got a frown on my face, I know one other person who for sure has got a frown on his face, and that’s Russell. In the playoffs, I couldn’t find him.”
Durant came to Media Day with his typical display of sweetness and humility, but something seemed different. It was a markedly increased level of maturity in his demeanor and his words.
“I’m excited going into my seventh year, starting to get up there a little bit,” Durant said. “Each moment, I’m starting to appreciate it a little bit more now. I just feel more like a vet. I’ve been through every situation. I’m a vet now. I know what I have to do to get better.”
“Yeah, we’re real confident that we can,” Durant said. “We’re not going to come in and say we can’t win it all [or] we don’t have enough. We’re all a confident group of guys. We’re an experienced group of guys.
“We’re like the little dogs fighting against the bigger cities, and I think we hold our own every single year no matter who we’re playing against. When you talk about the best organization in sports, you’ve got to put Oklahoma City in there. It feels good to say our name amongst some of the bigger cities.
“I’m excited for the opportunity that I’m going to get as a leader,” Durant added. “Stepping into a different phase as a leader.”
Despite Durant’s famous gentle nature, last year we spotted a never-before-seen side of him on the court. We saw aggressiveness and toughness on a regular basis. Perkins explained things from his vantage point.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve watched Kevin and every year, he grows,” Perkins said. “I think we’re all just watching Kevin grow into his own. He’s growing into a man. He’s becoming his own man. Kevin wants to be the best. He wants to be the best player in the NBA. I watch him work. He could literally play basketball for eight hours a day every day, pick-up all day long.
What about that humble and polite Durant we’ve witnessed for years?
“He’s got to keep his humble image,” Perkins explained. “Behind the scenes, sometimes you’ll see a different Kevin Durant. Sometimes he’ll turn it on. We embrace that. I actually love that. Sometimes it’s hard work to be the bad guy in certain situations. He’s getting more tenacity about himself.
“He reads everything you guys write about him. He wants to see the good, and he wants to see the bad. I know Kevin, and he wants to come out here and show the world who he is.”
Despite all of Durant’s accomplishments, including three scoring titles and four All-Star designations, Coach Brooks wants more.
“Kevin Durant – one of the best basketball players in the world – we’re on him,” Brooks said. “We want him to improve.”
Improvement. It’s a term all NBA teams talk about; the Thunder has adopted it as their mantra.
“A long time ago, KG (Kevin Garnett) told me that’s there’s nobody in the NBA that doesn’t have flaws, so in the offseason, you try to clean up your flaws,” said Perkins.
One might think the Thunder lost some momentum, or at least battle that perception, with the disappointing end to their season last year.
“That stuff comes from the outside,” said Durant. “We feel like we’re in a good position. That’s all that really matters. We’re always saying if we come in here thinking we’ve lost momentum or anything like that, that will mess us up.”
“Obviously last year we would have liked to have played better,” said Brooks. “I give our guys a lot of credit. We are not an excuse organization. We don’t make excuses. I thought our guys did a lot of growing up, including myself. We all feel like we’re going to come back better.”
Durant and Westbrook were the highest-scoring duo in the league last season. Kevin Martin, the team’s third-leading scorer, departed for the Minnesota Timberwolves, which begs the question of who will step into another major scoring role.
“The question needs to be, ‘How can we get Kevin and Russ and all of our guys to function better as a unit?’” said teammate Nick Collison. “We can’t rely on those guys to bail us out all the time. It’s just too hard to make that many incredible plays, especially in the playoffs. On the offensive side, we need to get more shots out of our execution and less out of our great players. We’ve known that for years.”
“I think the main problem is since James [Harden] left, I think everybody thinks everybody needs to fill that slot,” explained Westbrook. “The slot doesn’t have to be filled. We have a great team and everyone does their job and does it well. We should be alright.”
The answers to these many questions will become evident soon enough with the season firing up in just a few weeks.