On the Thunder's first offensive possession, Russell Westbrook was back to his old ways Sunday night.
Using a high ball screen, Westbrook slithered himself into the painted area with the same electric speed we've grown accustomed to seeing the last five seasons. He split the pick and roll the second the help hedged out an inch too far. Two dribbles later, he was back in the lane, back into the teeth of the defense and back where the Thunder needs him most.
A helpless Phoenix defender's only choice was to foul, preventing a possible highlight that has been in the making for more than six months.
Forty seconds into his long-awaited return, Westbrook was ready to unleash that unmatched explosiveness.
The Suns saw it first, and Dallas is on deck.
Westbrook is back, and if he's not better than ever, his season debut, a 103-96 Thunder win, provided glimpses of what's in store.
In his first game since a torn meniscus ended his postseason on April 24, Westbrook scored 21 points with four rebounds and seven assists in 33 minutes. His performance wasn't without its flaws, as evidenced by his 5-for-16 shooting and his four turnovers. But more significantly, it was an effort in which Westbrook put the league on notice that his surgically-repaired knee is doing just fine.
“I just missed some easy ones, but that will come,” Westbrook said. “But I'm able to do what I want.”
The easy ones included shots and reads, plays that Westbrook routinely makes when in rhythm. Right now, Westbrook admitted he's rusty.
“That's expected,” Westbrook said. “But I'm going to continue to stay in attack mode and continue to try to win.”
A victory was all Westbrook said he was expecting before the game on this emotional night. And his presence immediately pumped life into Thunder team that was so listless in its last outing that it suffered its worst loss since February 2011.
“I've been saying it forever. There's two things he does at a high level,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He wins. That's one. He's a winner. The guy plays the game like it's supposed to be played. It's not always going to be perfect, but he plays with everything he has every single night, and, to me, that's inspiring.
“And the second thing is leadership. And it's taken him some time to get that, but it's taken every young player in this league (time) to become the leader that they become … It took him some time. But now, he's our leader.”
Westbrook helped the Thunder overcome a scrappy Suns squad that wouldn't go away by scoring eight points with four assists in the fourth quarter. He made four of his 11 foul shots in the final 30 seconds to keep the Suns at bay.
“It was just good for him to be back,” said Kevin Durant, who finished with a game-high 33 points. “I know how much he loves the game, and for him to come out and do something he loves after being out for so long, it was just great to see him.”