Coming back from knee surgery is a tough thing to do. Coming back from knee surgery against the two-time defending champions is even tougher, with both Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook learning the hard way this season.
When Rose returned from an 18-month absence to face the Miami Heat on Opening Night, the Chicago Bulls star was harassed into a 4-of-15 shooting night in a 107-95 Heat victory that wasn't really that close. Rose was blitzed from the start by Miami's attacking defense, turning the ball over on the Bulls' first possession and five times total on the night.
Westbrook suffered a similar fate on Thursday night in his first game back since undergoing a third knee surgery in eight months in late December. Westbrook scored 16 points on 4-of-12 shooting while turning the ball over four times in a 103-81 destruction of Oklahoma City.
The Thunder quickly fell behind by 10 points in Westbrook's first stint of the game, and they were also outscored by 10 points in the guard's opening stint of the second half. It would be foolish to pin all of the blame on a noticeably rusty Westbrook, but one has to imagine his return did throw off Oklahoma City's dynamic bit.
"It was a combination of rust and bad decision-making," said Westbrook. "Our first game after the break is always a little slow. But no excuses. We'll get it together."
But while Westbrook did struggle, there were certainly positive signs. Westbrook was aggressive in attacking the rim, with eight of his 12 shots coming in the restricted area. And while the eccentric guard only made four of those eight shots, an inability to finish at the rim can be attributed to rust. Rose also had this issue when he returned this season, as he shot just 46.7 percent in the restricted area this year before getting injured again, per NBA.com's stats page.
Westbrook was also able to get to the line 10 times, further highlighting a general aggressiveness in his game. So despite the fact that Westbrook went just 4-of-12 from the field and 0-of-2 from three, he still managed to have more points than shots because of eight made free throws.
There are sure to be questions about the Thunder moving forward with Westbrook back in the lineup. Kevin Durant took his game to new heights with Westbrook out, but he really struggled at the outset of the loss Thursday before coming on strong at the end. However, can Durant's struggles against the Heat really be attributed to Westbrook's return? Or was it just a bad night against a fully engaged Miami defense?. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Ultimately, it's perfectly reasonable to expect some growing pains for the Thunder as Westbrook re-acclimates himself to the lineup. But that doesn't mean Oklahoma City is in trouble long term.
Because of Durant's ridiculous January, it's easy to forget the Thunder went 21-4 with Westbrook this season before he got hurt on Christmas. And while the injury was a tough break, it gave some of the role players a chance to step up and develop. With Westbrook back, Reggie Jackson returns to the bench to help lead a reserve unit that stands to be one of the most dangerous in the league.
Westbrook is a top 10 NBA talent, and while he can be erratic at times, it's hard to imagine the Thunder not taking off again if and when he returns to full strength.