Russell Westbrook shot free throws, completed a set of playful push-ups as teammate Serge Ibaka balanced a Gatorade bottle on his back and then got out of dodge, darting off the practice court and ducking behind the safe and secluded walls inside the Thunder's training center.
When he emerges, his next public appearance could be a long-awaited return to the Oklahoma City Thunder lineup.
Westbrook participated in his first full practice Wednesday afternoon, according to Thunder coach Scott Brooks, and is now believed to be a game-time decision for Thursday's clash with Miami.
“We'll see how he feels (Thursday),” Brooks said. “He did look good … He's increased his activity. He's done some things the last couple of shootarounds … But he looked good. His timing was pretty good.”
Westbrook missed the past 27 games while recovering from a third knee surgery in sixth months. A loose stitch from the original procedure required the second surgery before the start of the season, and chronic swelling mandated a third operation. The complications have forced the three-time All-Star point guard to miss 30 games this season. Oklahoma City went 22-8 in those games. The Thunder was 21-4 with Westbrook in the lineup.
“With Russell coming back,” Brooks said, “it adds a dynamic player on both ends of the floor.”
At the same time, Westbrook's return also raises a significant set of questions for the best team in basketball, none as imperative or intriguing as how Westbrook now fits next to Kevin Durant, the franchise player who took flight in his fellow All-Star's absence and took his game to another level.
It's the latest chapter in the career-long narrative surrounding arguably the game's best one-two punch.
First it was said that they couldn't coexist. Soon, sensible spectators recognized and appreciated Westbrook was dominant, too, and most backed down from the brutal criticism heaped upon him. Then, nine months ago, it became unequivocally clear through the Thunder's eye-opening postseason performance that Durant desperately needed Westbrook.
No longer was anyone questioning Westbrook's necessity alongside the league's three-time scoring champion.
Then came January.
Durant soared to never-before-seen heights without Westbrook, setting the league on fire with a scoring streak of 12 games with at least 30 points and an improbable winning streak that stretched to 10.
Appearing in 26 of the 27 games Westbrook missed, Durant has averaged 35 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals. And he's maintained his efficiency, shooting 52.7 percent from the field, a shade below 40 percent from the 3-point line and nearly 88 percent from the foul line.
Now, more Westbrook inevitably means less Durant, and that's become the cause for concern, at least for those on the outside looking in after their first extended look at more Durant looked danged good.
“He's a dog,” Durant said of Westbrook. “You got to let the dog off the leash sometimes and go play. And that's the guy you got to let off the leash.”
Durant and the Thunder are confident that the All-Star duo won't skip a beat. They've appeared in more than 400 games together and shared the court for another 45 postseason contests.
“We've been playing together for so long,” Durant said. “You guys must forget. We played six years together, and it's (30) games that he's missed. I mean, out of six years that's not a lot. So we shouldn't have to talk about anything.
“You just got to let him go out there and be him. He has great intentions. He's a team-first guy so it's going to work. I'm excited to have him back. I know he's excited to play again.”
For his part, Durant says he's willing to do whatever it takes to win. It'll be an interesting approach to watch play out given that much of the past criticism on Durant included a desire to see him embrace the alpha dog role. Now, not only does he sound willing to relinquish whatever mentality he's adopted, he also seems comfortable and ready to embrace the potential change.
“Playing on a team is about giving yourself up for the betterment of the group, for team success,” Durant said. “Whether coach wants me to sit in the corner and let Russ create, I'm willing to do that. I want to do that. If it's going out to make everybody else better, I'm willing to do that.
“When you talk about making your teammates better, it's not always just making a pass and being an assist guy. It's about giving yourself up, being a decoy sometimes, playing as hard as you can and inspiring your teammates. That's how I look at making your teammates better, much more than just passing them the basketball.”
While the world watches to see how it unfolds, the Thunder is holding onto a quiet confidence that Westbrook's return means the team can only get better. Players, coaches and front office executives all remember the hurting the Thunder put on New York on Christmas Day. It was Westbrook's last game. He had a triple-double, Durant scored 29 and OKC rolled.
That performance is now viewed as the team's baseline level of performance.
No one has any illusions about the time it will for this group to reach its full potential. But welcoming back one of the most explosive players in the world is the first step, one that, oddly enough, comes on the day of the league's trading deadline.
“It's like trading for an All-Star,” Durant said.