In a matter of days, the Oklahoma City Thunder have gone from looking like they might miss the playoffs to slowly moving up the Western Conference ladder. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook laughs about the sudden perceived change of fortune for his team.
"All the questions are whether we are going to get a higher [seed] now," Westbrook said. "It ain't no more about if we're going to make the playoffs."
The Thunder opened the season 3-12 with Westbrook and Kevin Durant sidelined because of injuries. In the strong Western Conference, their poor start was viewed as perhaps a mammoth hill too tough to climb even with Westbrook and Durant back.
Westbrook missed 14 games because of a broken right hand that sports a nasty surgical scar as a reminder. Durant also missed the first 17 games with a right foot fracture. The Thunder suffered other key injuries as well and desperately relied on defense during the absence of their hot-scoring standouts. Oklahoma City (12-13), however, has gone 9-2 since Westbrook returned to the lineup and is 7-1 with Durant.
"It will all work out on its own," Durant said. "We don't even worry about it. We continue to play the right way. Prepare the right way. Everything else will take care of itself."
Durant hopes to regain the form from a season ago when he was the NBA's Most Valuable Player and the league's leading scorer.
Westbrook is playing perhaps the best basketball of his career this season averaging 26.4 points, 6.8 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 29.3 minutes per game. Durant, however, is still trying to work off the rust while being limited minutes-wise. He is averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 32.3 percent from 3-point range. While the aforementioned statistics would be amazing for most NBA players, Durant averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 39.1 shooting from 3-point range last season.
After Durant scored 26 points on 12-of-25 shooting from the field and one made free throw against the Kings, an NBA scout in attendance told Yahoo Sports: "He's not quite there yet. I don't think he is capable of scoring 20 points in a quarter right now or 50 points in a game. But he's getting there. He's close."
"I'm one of those rhythm-type of players who gets his rhythm throughout a stretch, a week, a month," Durant said. "I feel like I'm almost there. Shots that I missed [against Sacramento], it feels like it was just a matter of time that I will be making them. What I'm doing now is trying to be locked in on the defensive end.
"It's just timing. Obviously, I want to make all the shots that I take. I know it's a part of the process. I know it's going to take a little time to get exactly where I want to be. And that's fine. This is my eighth game and I feel like I'm close."
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said he would re-evaluate whether Durant is ready for more minutes in about seven days. Durant is currently playing 29.2 minutes per game, but is available to play around 32-35 minutes. He averaged 38.3 minutes per game last season.
"The good thing when Kevin came back was the next part of his rehab was to be back on the court," Brooks said. "He was healthy enough to be on the court. But the balancing was manipulating the minutes so we can get the best production from the team with Kevin out there. The minutes were restricted so that isn't always easy for me.
"Do I buy some minutes in the first quarter or second quarter in order to get maybe some back-end minutes? But he's done a great job of adjusting. A lot of players have trouble adjusting on their rhythm of their game and the minutes they're used to."
The Thunder enter Thursday's game against the West's current top-seed Golden State Warriors (21-3) just a half-game behind the New Orleans Pelicans (12-12) for the conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
With Westbrook dominating, the Thunder could have enough to move up the steep West ladder if Durant plays like his old self.
"He's taking it one game at a time and trying to get his rhythm back," Westbrook said. "You see he is getting better and better. He's missing easy chip-ins that he is usually making all the time. He's going to get it back."