- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- Russell Westbrook was antsy Friday night in Brooklyn.
He could barely stay seated on the bench, leaping up at every opportunity to congratulate teammates or just walk around. Once, he wandered into the Oklahoma City Thunder's coaches' huddle during a timeout in the second half of his team's 120-95 blowout win over the Brooklyn Nets. As usual, he was the best dressed in the crowd.
The sight brought up the question: What would Westbrook the coach tell Westbrook the player when he comes back from knee surgery in the coming days? Within the team, the Thunder believe this has been an eye-opening experience for Westbrook to watch as he recovers. He's seen how his team has opened some new dimensions. They expect there might be a slightly different Westbrook when he returns, one that perhaps might answer the years-old call to become more of a playmaker than a shot-maker.
The Thunder have now won 10 games in a row, having found a remarkable rhythm as Westbrook heals from a third procedure on his knee. At first, it looked like Westbrook's surprise surgery after Christmas would be a blow to the Thunder, who went 5-5 in their first 10 games without him.
But with Kevin Durant displaying his potential as a full-time playmaker, the Thunder have looked so potent. It hasn't been just Durant's scoring binge, which really didn't come to a halt Friday -- he scored 26 points in 31 minutes on just 12 shots. It was news that his 12-game streak of 30-point games ended, but it was a pretty honorable way to go out, sitting the fourth quarter.
The Westbrook-Durant duo has been so successful that, in a way, the Thunder became a little stagnant over the past two seasons. It was the type of stagnation any team would enjoy -- the Thunder won 60 games last season and rolled in the playoffs until Westbrook first hurt his knee.
This spell with Westbrook out, however, has turned into a chance for growth. Durant has benefited the most because the ball has been in his hands more. Yes, he's shot it plenty and his scoring exploded. But he's also made a point to involve his teammates, as Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and, recently even Perry Jones, have showed a new capability that has the Thunder looking like a much deeper team than even they might have thought.
Westbrook was seeing this, too, even before he went down, which has the Thunder coaches excited about what he might do when he returns. They point to the final 10 games Westbrook played before he needed to have additional surgery.
After he averaged just five assists over his first 15 games of the season, it looked like it was the same old Russell who was back. But as the season wore on and he started to notice the depth on the team, he was starting to become more open-minded.
In those last 10 games, Westbrook was averaging 9.2 assists, and his shots dipped slightly. In his last game, a dominant effort on Christmas at Madison Square Garden, Westbrook had a triple-double in just 29 minutes on the floor.
This has been a call for Westbrook for years. His athleticism and confidence have made him one of the most dynamic and powerful guards in the league. At times, they've made him a ball hog who can hold back Durant. Now, Westbrook can see it's not just Durant he could share with, but a wealth of developing talent on his team that has come to life in the silver lining that developed when he went down.
Because Westbrook was such an ironman, he hadn't seen this before. He never missed a game and never got to watch what he had while in those fancy suits.
"You don't go into a season preparing for a guy to get hurt," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I don't know any coach that has done it, especially Russell. He's never missed a game of high school, college or NBA -- never missed a practice."
Brooks, Durant and the rest of the Thunder didn't have a game plan of how to play differently when Westbrook went down last season in the playoffs. They didn't really have one this season, either, as their struggles immediately after his latest surgery showed.
Now, the challenge is to get Westbrook to continue to play with that pedal-to-the-floor style but do so recognizing the whole spectrum of options. Some nights, indeed, the trusty 1-2 punch with him and Durant will be more than enough.
But there is no reason to go backwards now. The Thunder have the best record in the league and are about to get an All-Star back into their lineup. If Westbrook plays it right and the Thunder find the balance they have shown they possess, they could crack the ceiling they've been looking at for the past few seasons.
"This has been a great learning experience for all of us," Durant said. "The best part of our team is that we trust and encourage each other."
Kevin Durant and OKC have been on fire in January. What will the Thunder look like when Russell Westbrook returns?