NEW YORK – As Kevin Durant obliterates the NBA on a run of genuine genius, chasing down LeBron James for the MVP and championship, an inevitable moment of truth lingers for these Oklahoma City Thunder: the return of Russell Westbrook.
All these peerless performances out of Durant, 10 consecutive victories, the best record in the NBA, and still there's such an intrigue about how Westbrook melds back into Durant's dominance.
There's a post-All-Star break target date set for Westbrook, sources told Yahoo Sports – as soon as Feb. 20, hosting the Miami Heat – and a part of this process makes an old Los Angeles Lakers championship guard press rewind and return 13 years.
Derek Fisher closes his eyes, and it's 2001 again. He closes his eyes, and remembers Kobe Bryant missing several games late in the regular season. He remembers him watching those Lakers with an amended perspective and ultimately transforming a great team into a historic juggernaut. Westbrook is a superstar growing into his talent, maturing into his partnership with Durant.
Always, there's been some young Kobe within him. The immense talent, the relentless, independent spirit, the intelligence, the I-don't-give-a-bleep what they think of me. Thirteen years ago, Fisher witnessed something of a Bryant epiphany prior to those playoffs, something that he's watched welling within Westbrook now.
"We finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, and that's when we rode through the postseason only losing that one time, just Game 1 of the Finals," Fisher told Yahoo Sports on Friday night. "I've seen this before: Star player misses a short period, sees something while they're out that completely changes the way that they see the game. And when they come back, it's easier for them — and they make it easier for everyone else. I saw that with Russell.
"Listen, Russell was chasing triple-doubles every night before he went out, that's what people forget. The way we're playing now, the way we're feeling, that was going on with Russell."
Durant's spectacular 12-game game run of 30-point performances ended on Friday night in Oklahoma City's 120-95 pounding of the Brooklyn Nets, if only because the Nets offered so little resistance to his 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting. The Thunder never needed Durant beyond the third quarter, but everyone understood: He could've had 30, 35. Whatever he wanted.
"Never seen anything like this," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins told Yahoo Sports. "I've played with some great players, but never seen anyone get buckets so easy. It's too easy. Every shot he takes – one leg, fadeaway – you're damn sure it's going in. And then it does.
"Every road trip, we land and he goes to the gym at 8:30," Perkins said. "It doesn't matter if we practiced or didn't practice. He's going to the gym."
Outside of Steve Nash, Fisher has never seen a player practice so many shots from contorted and compromised positions. "He'll practice shooting off the wrong foot, and he'll make those look easy," Fisher said. "Kevin's dominance is almost more similar to Shaq's dominance, where he's shooting 60 percent. He's incredibly efficient. He's not taking 30 shots to get 30 points."
This Oklahoma City team has the best record in the NBA now, humiliating contender upon contender, and one of the sport's biggest stars awaits his return to the lineup. At times, there were complications with Durant and Westbrook on the floor. In the past, there were times it felt like they were taking turns shooting, more than they were playing together.
All around this franchise, there's a belief the best of Durant and Westbrook – the best of these Thunder – comes with the final weeks of the regular season and a playoff run into June. That knee is strong again, Westbrook's meniscus problems behind him, and it is merely precaution that's keeps him out until after the All-Star break this month, sources said.
Around the NBA, they're hoping one thing: That only Russell Westbrook can stop Kevin Durant now, that only his appetite for shots and scoring can undo an MVP at the apex of his talent. And around the Thunder, they're sure of this: Everyone else is dreaming.
Westbrook hadn't come back to these Thunder chasing shots, but assists and rebounds and devastating defensive stands. He's come back chasing a championship. Thirteen years ago, Bryant watched those Lakers winning without him, watched how he could fit back into everything and nothing ever touched L.A. on that back-to-back title push. Never close.
Now, Derek Fisher knots his tie inside the Thunder locker room and delivers a knowing smile. "What's most intriguing about Russell's return is that even at the level we're playing at now, we'll be better.
"He's going to make us better."
For the rest of the NBA, Fisher delivers a prophecy that, should it be fulfilled, promises only one thing: Resistance will be futile.