I asked Kevin Durant what advice he had for Russell Westbrook hours before the second-year point guard faced Gilbert Arenas for the first time Friday night.
Durant’s response caught me off guard.
“I haven’t played against him yet either,” Durant said. “The first two years I was in the league he was hurt. So this is my first time playing against him, too.”
The fact that Durant, and Jeff Green for that matter, also will be playing against Arenas for the first time tonight puts into perspective exactly how long the Washington Wizards guard has been on the shelf. Arenas, a three-time All Star in 2005, 2006 and 2007, has played in just 15 games the past two seasons. But the 6-foot-4 point guard is back this season, looking to reclaim his spot atop the NBA’s list of elite players.
Arenas has played in all 10 of the Wizards’ games this season and averaged 36.8 minutes. He’s scoring 22.8 points per game with averages of 6.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists.
“Gilbert’s back,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s capable of having a big game. He’s very strong, very quick, very offensive-minded. He’s good. I haven’t seen him live, but on film he’s pretty close to being back where he once was.”
Arenas is one of the few point guards Westbrook has yet to face after making his first lap around the NBA last season. What Westbrook could encounter tonight is a player who keeps him off balance with a deceptive shiftiness, an ability to score from anywhere on the court and an underrated sense of knowing how to make his teammates better with his passing skills. It’s a match up that could have a significant impact on the outcome of tonight’s game and determine whether the Thunder pulls its home record to an even 3-3 or drops to a disappointing 2-4.
“I’m not putting pressure on myself or going in like I’m playing somebody that I’ve never played before,” Westbrook said. “I just go with the same mindset, just go out and defend and make sure my teammates have my back and go from there.”
Durant, who’s worked out with Arenas in the past and filmed promotional spots with the Wizards point guard for EA Sports, said the similarities between Westbrook and Arenas extend beyond their uniform numbers.
“We all watch Gilbert. We all know how great he is,” Durant said. “They’re similar. Gilbert right now is just a better shooter than Russell is. They’re similar in their build and athleticism so it should be a fun match up. But we’re going to help Russell out as much as possible.”
Brooks said he wants Westbrook to play with his usual aggressiveness, attacking Arenas on offense while attempting to pester him defensively.
“Respect him but challenge him,” Brooks said of what he will tell Westbrook. “Gilbert’s one of the better point guards in the league. It’s going to be a great test for Russell, but it’s not about Russell and Gilbert going at each other. Russell has to attack when he has the opportunity and he has to be a playmaker when that comes about. But it’s important that Russell really challenges himself and gets after him defensively like he’s done the last couple of games.”
Three days after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to remove staples from his reconstructed left knee, Shaun Livingston was on the court with Director of Medical Services Donnie Strack doing light running and shooting drills.
Even more impressive, according to coach Brooks, Livingston was back on the practice court doing light activities Wednesday, just one day after having the procedure.
“It’s amazing what technology (is) nowawdays,” Brooks said. “But he’s doing light stuff and we like what he’s doing. He’s coming along. Donnie and our guys are right on top of it. And Shaun’s going to continue to work hard and get it back to where it needs to be.”
Brooks said the timetable for Livingston to return to the lineup still is three to four weeks.
DEFENSE, DEFENSE, DEFENSE
Near the conclusion of Friday’s shootaround, which had more of a practice feel because of its approximately 1 1/2-hour length, Brooks spoke to his team with passion and aggressiveness as he implored them to focus on defense. He pointed out how poorly the Thunder played Wednesday at Orlando and challenged the players to respond with a better effort tonight.
“Tonight’s game is about defense right from the start,” Brooks said.
The Thunder then worked on its shell defense principles and closing out on the ball properly. Assistant coach Ron Adams said he actually walked out of Amway Arena in Orlando feeling good about the Thunder’s effort because, “The guys in the fourth quarter reflected who we are.” Adams credited the bench unit for hustling, moving the ball and playing much better defense.
“We have to defend tonight,” Brooks said. “We have to defend with more spirit, more energy than we did the last game.
“We know we’re going to have to score some points tonight because they’re a very talented team. But we have to get some stops. We have to be able to take the ball off the backboard and not through the net. We have to be able to run the ball down the court and score in our transition game. They’re a team that if we’re constantly taking the ball out of the net it’s going to put a lot of pressure on our offense.”
PREPARING TO SEE A ZONE
The Wizards are expected to throw a lot of zone at the Thunder tonight, and a portion of Friday morning’s session was geared toward attacking the zone. The Thunder focused on spacing, ball movement, hard cuts and hitting shots.
“We have a zone offense,” Brooks said. “It’s easier said than done but we have to make shots. Anytime a team throws a zone at you, you have to have good spacing, you have to have good cuts and you have to be able to hit shots when they’re open.”
NOT COACHING EFFORT
Despite losing by 14 points to Orlando and trailing by as many as 30, Brooks said he’s been pleased with the Thunder’s effort throughout the first 12 games and glad that he no longer has to coach that aspect of the game.
“I think our effort’s been there,” Brooks said. “It’s fun coaching our guys knowing that all I have to do is work on different parts of our offense and defensive package. Guys are getting after it. The bench is coming in and giving us energy.”
WILL KD IMPRESS FOR THE FOLKS BACK HOME?
Durant maintains that he is equally excited for every game no matter the opponent. But he admitted that tonight’s game carries a little more significance simply because it will be broadcast on to his family and friends back in the Washington, D.C. area.
“That should be fun,” Durant said. “A lot of people don’t get to see me play, but to have the game on T.V. back at home should be pretty cool. I normally get a lot of messages after the game so everybody that’s going to be watching that’s going to be fun to see.
“People talk a lot of trash back at home. I get text messages that the Wizards are going to beat us and, ‘Even though I like your game I’m a Wizards fan.’ So it should be a fun thing when I get to my phone after the game.”