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Return of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant has Thunder back in playoff mix

When Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot prior to the season, it was another tough blow to a Thunder squad that had dealt with numerous key injuries the past few years. But even with Durant out awhile, Russell Westbrook was supposed to be around to keep Oklahoma City afloat until the reigning MVP returned to the lineup.

Then Westbrook broke his hand in the second game of the season, and soon there were questions about whether the Thunder could make the playoffs in the stacked Western Conference. Despite solid effort on the defensive end, Oklahoma City started the year 4-12 because the offense was a train wreck without its two stars. The Thunder scored just 95.5 points per 100 possessions in the 14 games without Westbrook and Durant, per NBA.com, a mark that would rank as the second-worst in the league behind only the wretched Philadelphia 76ers.

It’s now nearly three weeks since that 4-12 start, and it has been all but forgotten. That’s because Westbrook and Durant are back and leading the Thunder back into the playoff race in the West.

Westbrook returned on Nov. 28 against the New York Knicks and immediately made his presence felt. The electric point guard had 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in just 24 minutes, and Oklahoma City pummeled New York. Durant returned the next game against the New Orleans Pelicans, and while the Thunder lost, things were about to take a turn for the better.

Oklahoma City has won seven straight games since the defeat at the hands of New Orleans, and it has been Westbrook leading the charge. Since his return from the hand injury, Westbrook has averaged 27.8 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 50.9 percent overall and 35.7 percent from three-point land. The big numbers are nothing new for the point guard, but his superb efficiency thus far is especially impressive.

Speaking of efficiency, Westbrook currently leads the entire league with a PER of 34.64, and he’s doing it with an astronomical usage rate of 38.2. It’s still a rather small sample size for him and there’s sure to be some regression, but we probably shouldn’t expect too much of a drop-off.

As for Durant, his numbers aren’t as impressive as we’ve grown accustomed to, but that’s because he has been on a minutes restriction since his return. The rangy forward is averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists on the season, but he’s averaging 26.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists per 36 minutes. He’s shooting 50.4 percent from the field despite shooting just 32.3 percent from deep, and he has a sterling PER of 25.53.

Thanks to the exploits of Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder offense has returned to its dominant form. Oklahoma City has scored 107.9 points per 100 possessions since Westbrook returned from his hand injury, per NBA.com, which is just less than last season’s offensive rating of 108.1.

Thanks to the seven-game winning streak and some struggles by the other teams fighting for the eighth playoff spot in the West, the Thunder find themselves just a half-game out of that final spot. Any concerns about missing the postseason are basically kaput as long as the team’s stars stay healthy, and now the question is just how high Oklahoma City will rise.

Vegas has plenty of faith in the Thunder, as they currently have 15/2 odds to win the 2015 NBA title, according to Bovada. Only the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors have better odds. As the season goes on, don’t be surprised if those odds get even better for Oklahoma City.


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