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Column: Will Westbrook's return help or harm the Thunder?

By Eddie Leonard
On February 20, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder fans are the closest things to the Seattle Seahawks' 12th Man that the NBA has to offer. The Miami Heat will find that out as they will be heading into a jam packed Chesapeake Energy Arena on Thursday night.
Thursday's game features a plethora of eye-catching headlines. The most obvious being the MVP duel between LeBron James and Kevin Durant. However, the storyline that may affect the outcome of this duel is the return of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has missed almost two months due to a third surgery to repair his torn meniscus.
Westbrook has only played in 25 games this season. In those games, however, he averaged 21 points, seven assists, and six rebounds a game, All-Star numbers to say the least.
A lot of critics did not expect the Thunder to be as good as they have been without Westbrook in the lineup. However, Durant flourished in the lineup without Westbrook, averaging 35 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, propelling him to the top of the MVP ladder.
So one of the biggest questions looming over the heads of NBA fans is how will Westbrook's return affect the red hot chemistry of this Thunder team?
Westbrook took over 100 more shots than Durant last season, which frustrated Thunder fans that want to see the Durant we saw in January all the time. However, those fans should try to remember when the Memphis Grizzlies rolled out four straight wins over the Thunder in the playoffs last year when Westbrook was injured. That series showed that Durant needs Westbrook despite all controversies.
If Westbrook returns and plays his game, Durant will probably not win MVP, but the Thunder will have a much better chance at winning the NBA Finals. I am sure the so-called "Slim Reaper" would rather be holding the Larry O'Brien trophy anyway.
As far as Thursday's game, I expect Westbrook to return like Kobe Bryant did last season. Remember that Kobe? The one that passed every opportunity he had, even on an open break like Rajon Rondo. Yes, that will be Westbrook on Thursday night because he doesn't want to be the one to hold Durant back from unleashing on LeBron. But don't worry, just like Kobe, Westbrook will be back to normal in a few games, jacking up his normal yet questionable shots.
I have Miami winning on Thursday by five due to some matchup problems the Thunder face in transition. Kendrick Perkins does not match up well against this fast-paced Miami team. That is why Scott Brooks benched him last time they played. Also, the last time these two teams played the Thunder shot lights out on their comeback pursuit. They hit 16 3-pointers, including two bank-shots from Derek Fisher, who shot 5-for-5 from downtown. The Thunder are good but they are not that good. I also hardly expect Ibaka to score 22 points again, which will force Brooks to play into the Perkins mismatch. Regardless of the final score, it will be an exciting game. I definitely expect there to be a stretch where James and Durant exchange buckets back and forth on multiple possessions as if they are the only two players on the court.
 


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