1. Strong Early Return For Russell Westbrook
By the time the news was out that Russell Westbrook needed a second knee surgery last month and the league and fans were reacting with shock, he was already destined for a fast comeback.
Westbrook's return Sunday against the Phoenix Suns seemed to come out of nowhere, especially considering the Oklahoma City Thunder publicly announced he would be out until December after an arthroscopic procedure on Oct. 1.
But according to a source who was briefed on the process, Westbrook's knee quickly responded to the treatment and the swelling that was bothering him and concerning the team quickly disappeared. In addition, the scope showed the meniscus Westbrook tore during the playoffs last season had totally healed, giving him the confidence that he'd be able to return to his normal self.
Because of these factors, the second operation actually might have sped up his return. He ended up only missing two games and was there for the Thunder's home opener.
Westbrook was already pain-free -- he was still able to practice the same day he boarded a plane to California to get the second surgery. When the surgeons didn't even have to touch the interior of Westbrook's knee to fix the issue, he was on a path for a speedy return. The always conservative Thunder probably could've deployed him for the season opener last week but took a few extra days to make sure. As a result, Westbrook was back without any restrictions on amount of minutes he could play or playing in back-to-back games.
"I don't know who made [the 4-6 week projected recovery] up in the first place, I was never on that timeline at all," Westbrook told reporters before the game. "I was just taking it day by day. Taking it one day at a time until I was ready to play."
All of this was evident in the Thunder's 103-96 victory Sunday night. Westbrook looked as explosive as ever on his way to 21 points, four rebounds and seven assists. There was some rust from not getting game time and that may have contributed to a few early turnovers. A few of his jumpers came up short -- he was just 5-of-16 from the floor -- as he worked to get his rhythm back.
Kevin Durant did the heavy lifting with 33 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. His putback of a Westbrook miss with 32 seconds left ended up being the biggest basket of the game.
On one play in the first half, Westbrook saw a double-team coming when the Suns' Goran Dragic and Miles Plumlee attempted to trap him in the corner. He exploded along the baseline, planting and cutting on his right leg to break the trap, and then delivered a no-look pass to Durant for a basket.
With less than three minutes to play and the Thunder in the midst of zipping past the competitive Suns -- Phoenix led by as many as seven in the second half but the Suns' bid for a road upset was hurt when Dragic went down with a sprained left ankle in the third quarter -- Westbrook exploded for a coast-to-coast layup by again pushing off the right leg on the drive.
"It could be better. It was all right. But that's expected. I didn't expect to come back and be bionic," he told reporters afterward.
Westbrook being back in the lineup made the Thunder's bench, which has been diagnosed as a possible weakness, look at little more potent. Reggie Jackson moved out of the starting lineup and scored 10 points off the bench. Collectively, the Thunder's reserves scored 35 points in the win.
The Thunder are careful to point out that Westbrook is still in the recovery process. He'll still be taking steps to strengthen his knee and to regain stamina for the foreseeable future. But the work Westbrook put in over the summer, and the slow and steady approach the team took in getting him back -- including not putting off the second procedure -- appears to have put him in position to return in good shape.
"Rehab is a tough process," Westbrook said. "I'm going to continue to rehab throughout the season, before the game, whatever I need to do to stay healthy throughout the year."
2. Around The Association
Most Valuable Player: Victor Oladipo (19 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals) had several "SportsCenter" Top 10-worthy plays, like his spin move on Andray Blatche en route to a layup, and his 360 dunk in transition off a steal.
Defining moment: Early in the fourth quarter, Oladipo whipped out a 360 dunk on a one-man fast break that pumped up not only Oladipo, who pounded his chest in celebration, but the home crowd as well, who roared in approval.
That was ... a bad performance: The Brooklyn Nets got outworked and outplayed -- plain and simple. They were overwhelmed by the Magic's energy and effort all night long, and that led to an ugly blowout loss in Jason Kidd's coaching debut.
MVP: Kevin Durant delivered yet another typically sublime performance: 33 points on 9-of-18 shooting and 10 rebounds. It wasn't the easiest, nor prettiest, win for the Thunder, but Durant delivered when his team needed him the most.
X factor: Russell Westbrook's surprising return to the starting lineup gave the Thunder a much-needed jolt. Westbrook did look a bit shaky, but he had more than a few flashes of his normal brilliance -- a swift, no-look pass to a cutting Durant and a terrific block on the taller Mason Plumlee, to name two.
Defining moment: The Thunder had two back-to-back fast-break layups -- the first by Westbrook, the second by Jackson -- midway through the fourth that finally got the Thunder into a rhythm they'd previously been missing the entire night.
MVP: The Hawks lost this game, but Kyle Korver was definitely the most valuable player on the court. Korver had 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the field (6-for-6 from 3), which helped the Hawks close what was a 21-point deficit.
X factor: Jordan Hill in the fourth quarter. He gave the Hawks fits on the boards and allowed the Lakers to keep a couple of possessions going late in the game from his pure effort.
That was ... weird: Looking at the scoreboard, it was odd to see Kobe Bryant and Josh Smith NOT leading the way for the Lakers and Hawks. Instead, we had Xavier Henry and Kyle Korver; "weird" definitely fits the bill for that.
MVP: On a night when the Wolves were humming and buckets came in droves, Kevin Love (34 points, 14 rebounds, five assists) paced the visitors with aplomb. Seemed like every time the Knicks would threaten a run, K-Love had an answer.
X factor: The entirety of Kevin Martin's maddening repertoire was on display: sweet shooting (30 points on 12 shots -- TWELVE!), slippery foul-draws, and the kind of keen offensive court awareness the Wolves were looking for when they signed him over the summer.
Defining moment: With just over three minutes left and his team's lead dwindling, Love connected on a ridiculous, off-balance banker from the wing to put the Wolves back up eight. The Knicks called timeout, and Love got sideline dap from Spike Lee. Game over.
MVP: Andre Drummond (15 points and 12 rebounds) made it look easy at times with five dunks and two layups, seven coming off assists and one off an offensive rebound. He both defended actively (two steals) while still defending the rim (two blocks).
X factor: Brandon Jennings. Making his Pistons debut, he didn't mesh seamlessly with Detroit's jumbo front line. Shooting 5-of-12 is not good, and four assists with two turnovers in 31 minutes is just OK. But Jennings' quick hands created four steals, which led to seven Pistons points. That more than made up for his acclimation issues.
That was ... aesthetically pleasing until the game started: The Pistons debuted their navy blue "Motor City" uniforms, and matched against the Celtics' classic whites, they looked sharp. But once the game began, a combined 45 turnovers and 17 percent 3-point shooting made for an ugly contest.
That was ... teamwork: This was one of the Heat's most selfless outings in the Big Three era and Mario Chalmers led the way. After the Heat looked disjointed in Brooklyn and Philly, Chalmers kept the Heat's offense humming without taking much off the table with mistakes.
That was ... teamwork, Part 2: The Heat assisted 86 percent of their baskets in Sunday's win, marking their highest such mark in more than 15 seasons.
LVP: Wizards defense. The post-Emeka Okafor era isn't going so well. Playing without their defensive anchor from last season, the Wizards have been a doormat so far in 2013-14, surrendering at least 100 points in all three games to open up the season.
Kevin Love, Timberwolves:
To good health! Love had 34 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, helping his Timberwolves improve to 3-0 for the first time in 12 years with a 109-100 win in New York. Early still, but a first playoff berth since 2004 is no joke.
4. Sunday's Worst
The Brooklyn Nets: Jason Kidd's debut was inauspicious, as his veteran club was smoked by a young, hungry Magic squad 107-86. The danger exhibited for the Nets is the idea that they can get up for the likes of the Heat, but put it in autopilot against the unheralded members of the league.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Don't want to live in the past, don't want to live too far in the future, we just want to try to plan for Cleveland tomorrow."
-- Kevin Love, whose oft-injured Wolves are looking good after a 3-0 start.
8. Relearning To Howl
9. Stat Check
Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe scored 15 points each for the Pistons in an 87-77 win over the Celtics. Boston's leading scorer, Kelly Olynyk, also tallied 15 points. It was only the second Celtics game in the shot-clock era in which no player for either side scored more than 15 points. The first was a 71-69 Boston win over the Bulls in February.
10. Parting Shot