This time around, the Thunder has taken a more cautious approach to Russell Westbrook's return.
There's the documented minutes restriction — from 33 per night to around 25 — and the in-game hints. He's been spotted riding a stationary bike while out of the game and doing various knee exercises during timeouts.
“I have to be able to get myself going, get my blood moving, get my legs warm and be ready to get back on the floor,” Westbrook said, adding the injury process “taught me a lot” as far as body maintenance goes.
But from a strict on-court standpoint, this Westbrook return is starting out much like the last one.
In early November, after missing all of training camp and the Thunder's first two games, Westbrook returned for the home opener against the Phoenix Suns.
His athleticism was there but his touch wasn't. He made only five of his 16 shots, committed four turnovers and the Thunder looked average in a narrow win.
Over the next couple of weeks, his play remained spotty and his team failed to find a complete rhythm. They won the majority of their games, including an overtime squeaker over Washington where Westbrook shot 4-of-16 and was ejected, but still seemed a bit off.
But by the end of November, OKC was rolling. And by the start of December, so was Westbrook. In his final 10 games before the latest surgery, Westbrook was averaging 21.9 points, 9.2 assists and 8.3 rebounds. The Thunder's record during that stretch: 9-1.
“He was playing the best basketball of his career,” Kevin Durant said.
But the nearly two-month lay-off has sent Westbrook's back into a similarly rusty state.
In the loss to Miami on Thursday, he shot 4-of-12 from the field and committed four turnovers in 24 minutes. At times, he looked visibly frustrated with his ballhandling, looking down at his hand after a sloppy dribble or tipped pass.
“It'll come back,” Westbrook said. “Slowly but surely.”
In Sunday's loss to the Clippers, Westbrook's handle looked a bit better, but his typically lethal midrange remained off.
Three times, Westbrook rose up for one of those patented 15-foot bankers. Each time, he missed badly on the angle.
Against the Clippers, he shot 3-of-12. In two games, he's 7-of-25 overall, 5-of-13 at the rim (with two of the makes wide open fastbreak dunks) and 0-of-5 from mid-range.
But the Thunder refuses to panic. And the two losses have been far more about defensive lapses, where Westbrook is far from the biggest culprit.
Athletically, in flashes, he looks like the same Westbrook. And in the grand scheme, that's the real concern.
“He had moments where you would think, ‘Man, has this guy missed any time?' with how explosive he was,” Miami's Dwyane Wade said on Thursday. “It's going to come.”