OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook isn’t quite ready to go full speed after last season’s knee injury that left him on the bench for Oklahoma City’s second-round exit from the playoffs.
The point guard, however, isn’t about to let a little thing like his health hinder expectations for the Thunder.
Oklahoma City opens training camp on Saturday, eager to put the memories of last season’s disappointing playoff exit to rest once and for all.
It will do so with an uncertain timetable for Westbrook’s return, though he said at media day Friday that he’s already taken part in spot shooting, dribbling and running drills.
“First day of training camp, I’ll be on the floor,” Westbrook said.
General manager Sam Presti declined to put a timetable on Westbrook’s return earlier in the week, a thought echoed by coach Scott Brooks on Friday.
Brooks said Westbrook experienced some swelling in his right knee this week, but he stressed it was a common part of the recovery process. Brooks expects the sixth-year standout — who averaged 23.2 points and 7.4 assists per game last season — to be a smarter player this season after being forced to watch the Thunder’s second-round playoff exit to Memphis from the bench.
“He was able to see the game differently last year toward the end of the year,” Brooks said. “It’s not something that we all wanted him to look at the game differently, but when you’re looking at the team with an injured eye, you look at it differently. He’s been a great, positive force for all of our players during that time, and we are excited to have him back.”
The playoff loss to the Grizzlies was one of the few setbacks the Thunder have had since the arrival of three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant and Westbrook. Even without sixth man James Harden last season following his trade to Houston, Oklahoma City had the best regular-season record in the West at 60-22.
In the second game against the Rockets in the first round, Westbrook tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee when he banged knees with Patrick Beverly. The Thunder advanced past Houston without Westbrook, but it lost twice in the series following the injury and become increasingly reliant on Durant for offense.
Durant averaged 28.1 points per game last season, narrowly missing a fourth scoring title behind New York’s Carmelo Anthony. Without Westbrook’s production, however, Durant’s shooting percentage dropped from 51 percent in the regular season to 42 percent in the playoff loss to the Grizzlies.
The seventh-year pro turns 25 on Sunday and joked that he’s “getting up there a little bit.” Durant called last season’s playoff run without Westbrook “different.” He said the Thunder learned from the time without its point guard, and he said the team doesn’t feel like it took a step back following its trip to the NBA Finals one year earlier.
“We feel that we’re in a good position; that’s all that really matters,” Durant said. “We’re all really excited. If we come in thinking we lost momentum, or anything like that, that will mess us up.”
Westbrook said once he’s fully recovered, he doesn’t plan on changing anything about his playing style, including his ability to drive to the basket.
While he’s waiting for full clearance from doctors, Westbrook expects Oklahoma City’s high expectation level to remain the same, with or without him on the court during games. He said that’s a product of an experienced core group that has returned “smarter” this season in the wake of his injury.
“I think my voice can be as good as my play,” Westbrook said. “I think me talking and trying to find a way to lead is as good as me playing.”
Oklahoma City enters this season in need of offensive help alongside Durant and Westbrook following the departure of Kevin Martin, who averaged 14 points per game last season, to Minnesota as a free agent.
Some of the offense is expected to be picked up by third-year guard Reggie Jackson, who averaged 13.9 points in the playoffs after averaging just 5.3 during the regular season. Also, forward Serge Ibaka returns after averaging 13.2 points per game last season.
Whoever helps lift some of the scoring load from Durant and Westbrook might be unclear just yet, but forward Nick Collison made it clear someone has to.
“We can’t rely on those guys to bail us out all the time,” Collison said. “It’s just too hard. It’s too hard to make that many incredible plays, especially in a playoff series. On the offensive side, we need to get more shots out of our execution and less out of our great players that we have.”