Russell Westbrook has always played angry. Since he's returned from his knee injury, he's played even more mad.
"For anybody who gets hurt, you come back with a bigger shovel," Westbrook said. "You want to compete, come back better and compete at the level before you got hurt.
"It's made me even more meaner. But that's normal for me."
Westbrook never missed a game during his first five NBA seasons. He quickly built a reputation as one of the NBA's most confident scorers despite playing alongside Kevin Durant. Westbrook was often criticized for being too offensive-minded as a point guard, but he also often said he didn't care what his critics thought.
Knee injuries eventually forced Westbrook to the sideline, the first of which knocked him out of last season's playoffs. He's had three procedures on his right knee since the initial injury. Sidelined for 35 games this season, he has been forced to watch the Thunder mostly succeed without him. He said that's helped him learn what style of play is best for him and the team. He now has a better understanding of when and where to get his teammates the ball.
"I learned different things about my teammates," Westbrook said. "I learned how they react. I learned the game more from sitting on the sidelines. I saw different things as a point guard that are good things to know."
Westbrook was averaging 21.3 points on 42.4 percent shooting with 17.9 shots per game before he was sidelined on Dec. 25. Since returning on Feb. 20, he has averaged 22.3 points on 46.5 percent shooting in 16 shots per game. He also averaged 7 assists in 32.9 minutes compared to 6.8 assists in 27.5 minutes since his return.
"He looks like he is more explosive and he's making good decisions," Durant said. "It looks like he learned a lot just sitting there watching. You think the game more just sitting and watching."
Said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins: "Just watch his court awareness. He's very selective about his shot selection now. He is still being aggressive, but he is picking and choosing when to be aggressive, which is helping us."
Perkins often fondly talks about his days playing alongside Kevin Garnett with the Boston Celtics. Perkins respected Garnett's old-school approach where every opponent was the enemy. Westbrook has the same attitude, and Durant has noticed that his teammate no longer fraternizes with opponents during games.
"He always plays with a chip on his shoulder," Durant said. "Angry could be good and bad. But it's on the good side for Russ. He doesn't like anybody he is playing against. He plays with that edge and he plays at a high level."
Westbrook said the Thunder's doctors and trainers thought it was best for him to not play either the first or second games of back-to-backs prior to the playoffs. He won't have to worry about back-to-backs in the postseason, and he's not lacking confidence in his knees.
"When you're looking at the grand scheme of things and see how quickly you can come off the floor and be sitting on the side," Westbrook said, "you think to yourself and realize you have to take every moment on the floor and cherish it."
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