Originally Published: February 23, 2014

1. Fitting Form The Question For Westbrook

By Royce Young | TrueHoop Network

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Down four to the Los Angeles Clippers with 35 seconds left, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a decision to make. Go for a risky two-for-one, or drain clock while running a set to try for a good look?

Too late. Russell Westbrook was already firing away from 28 feet.

He's baaaack.

Westbrook's shot was wide left, the Clippers rebounded and put the finishing touches on an impressive 125-117 shootout win on the road against the West's top team. It gave the Thunder just their fifth home loss of the season, but with two of them coming in a four-day span, and both carrying a common theme -- Westbrook's return to his starting spot.

Westbrook
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsRussell Westbrook is working his way back, but the Thunder couldn't get past the Clippers.

The wild heave from Westbrook really was the perfect, one-shot illustration of why some have been anxious about his return. Because as he was chucking contested, Kevin Durant, who was sitting on 42 points and 10 assists, stood silently by.

Any debate about Westbrook taking shots from Durant has mostly been put to bed some time ago -- 13 shots for Westbrook to Durant's 30 on Sunday, for those keeping score at home -- but with the tear Durant went on in January and February, with every big moment, every big shot, every big play falling into his magnetic hands, it was jarring to see someone else trying to do something.

Westbrook's re-addition to the lineup hasn't been seamless. He's on an awkward minutes restriction, which has made his time on the floor a bit uncomfortable. For a stretch in the second quarter, that chemistry between Durant and Westbrook showed up, reminding the rest of the league why there's a reason to fear the Thunder. Electric pick-and-roll action, end-to-end transition, high-flying improvised explosions.

But before it could really get good, Westbrook was back on the bench. He had played his stretch of first-half minutes and he had to sit.

"It's an adjustment that we all have to make, and we are going to make it. It just takes some time," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Westbrook. "He is as dynamic of a player as any, on both ends of the floor. He brings us heart, he brings us hustle, and his game is going to come along. You cannot expect the guy to miss the games that he has missed and come out making every shot and making every pass. He is doing it with hustle and heart, and that's what we need him to continue to do in that leadership position. He takes the challenge of guarding players, and that's what we need. We need to find a team full of guys to getting back to doing that."

The Thunder have dropped both games with Westbrook back in the starting lineup, but before you say "I knew it!" there are two necessary footnotes to go with that: (1) Westbrook is limited to just about 25 minutes a game and (2) the games were against the Miami Heat and Clippers. Forget trying to work Westbrook back in. That's a challenge already.

"I'm a hundred percent," Westbrook said of how he feels. "Obviously I'm not going to come back and be Superman, but I'm going to come back every game and get better."

Narratives are fun, and the Westbrook-returns-and-screws-up-the-Thunder is an easy one, but in this case, OKC's struggles were far bigger than one unfortunate shot attempt. The Thunder allowed 72 points in the first half, and a robust 118.9 points per 100 possessions to the Clippers. Westbrook was 3-for-13 in his 25 minutes, but the Thunder still finished with 117 points. And lost.

"We're adding a very good player, an All-Star player and when you add that to your team, it helps your team," Brooks said. "We're not [not] playing defense because Russell came back. We're not playing defense because our team didn't commit to that end of the floor."

Even with back-to-back losses, the Thunder are still 21-6 with Westbrook, and 22-8 without. And with four home games ahead against the Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Bobcats and 76ers, there's a good opportunity to eliminate the chatter while also integrating their All-Star point guard back into the lineup. The Thunder are unquestionably, undoubtedly better with Westbrook. He takes dumb shots, and he takes plenty away from Durant. But you can't argue with the results the two have produced together the past five years. Lots of wins, postseason success, individual accomplishments. Don't let two games mislead you.

The Thunder were spectacular in Westbrook's absence, but that's because Durant really is that good. Not because of some contrived argument that they're more potent without Westbrook.

Still, there's no question that Westbrook has blemishes in his game, and could serve his co-star better. While sidelined, Westbrook talked about watching, learning and adjusting to how his team excelled without him. But old habits die hard, especially when you're as strong-headed as Westbrook. In answering a question about rookie Steven Adams getting a start for injured Kendrick Perkins, Westbrook said this: "It takes time. I'm still learning my position as I get older."

Maybe he learned something new Sunday.

Royce Young's work appears regularly on Daily Thunder, part of the TrueHoop network

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