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Stay positive


Coming off its greatest regular-season NBA accomplishment and worst post-season disappointment, injured superballer Russell Westbrook and the Thunder exude optimism for its sixth season.

Brendan Hoover October 9th, 2013

Russell Westbrook flashed his trademark smile while getting peppered with questions from reporters.

Though the three-time All-NBA second team point guard’s injury has cast uncertainty on the start of the fifth Oklahoma City Thunder season, Westbrook was unfettered while addressing those concerns.

“My state of mind? Positive, always positive for me,” Westbrook said during Thunder media day on Sept. 27. “I think through the process of rehab, you have to be confident, knowing that everything is heading like it’s supposed to.”

The road to recovery took a detour as the Thunder brass announced Westbrook will miss the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season after undergoing successful knee surgery Oct. 1 to repair a loose stitch from an April surgery that repaired a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.

“Fortunately, we were also able to confirm that the meniscus has healed properly,” Thunder General Manager Sam Presti said.

The entire Thunder team missed a total of 29 games last year due to injury. If he’s out the full six weeks, Westbrook could miss 23 games to start this season.

Westbrook’s importance to the Thunder was clearly illustrated last year. Following Oklahoma City’s first-ever 60-win regular season, the Thunder lost in the second round of the NBA playoffs after Westbrook went down.

Without Westbrook — who had never before missed a game in his career — questions abound for the Thunder.

“Guys have to step up, and we just have to believe in each other and our system,” said Thunder star Kevin Durant.

Jackson in familiar spot
Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson seems primed to start in Westbrook’s stead. In Westbrook’s absence, Jackson performed admirably, averaging 13.9 points, 3.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.91 turnovers while shooting 47.9 percent over 11 playoff games, including nine starts.

Then, in July, Jackson set an Orlando Summer League single-game scoring record, posting 35 points in a win against Detroit.

Jackson’s attacking style draws comparisons to Westbrook. According to Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, Jackson is evolving into “a better player, even more so than last season.”

Playing without Westbrook provided a valuable team learning experience, Durant said.

“Russell is kind of like the heart and soul of our team,” Durant said.

“I’m not making excuses at all about anything, but it was a little bit different without him. Guys stepped up, and I think that’s the good thing we can take out of it. A guy like Reggie Jackson played his tail off every single game and learned a lot. That’s going to help him out this season.”

After a “mustard seed of doubt” crept into his mind the past two seasons, Jackson, speaking before Westbrook’s surgery, said his confidence is now at an all-time high.

Veteran guard Derek Fisher, returning to the Thunder this year, said Jackson found a comfort level that comes with experience.

“[Jackson] finished the season at a phenomenal level last year,” Fisher said. “I think he’s going to be a very key piece to the success of our team this year.”

Can Durant handle the load?
Trying to compensate for his fallen friend, Durant averaged 30.8 points per game during last year’s playoffs, shooting 45.5 percent on 22.4 field goal attempts per game.

During the regular season, Durant averaged 28.1 points per game, shooting 51 percent on 17.7 field goal attempts per game.

Without Westbrook to stretch the floor, opposing defenses loaded up on the four-time All-NBA first team forward. One of the keys to alleviating pressure on Durant is for the team to play as a cohesive unit, veteran forward Nick Collison said.

“It’s just too hard to make that many incredible plays, especially in a playoff series,” Collison said.

“We need to get more shots out of our execution and less out of our great players that we have.”

Now entering his seventh pro season, Durant said he is ready to step into a different phase as a team leader.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Lamb could play vital role
After stints last year with the Thunder and the NBA Development League Tulsa 66ers, second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb dazzled offensively at the Orlando Summer League and could fill the void left by James Harden and Kevin Martin.

“[Lamb ’s] one of those guys that’s like a sponge,” Durant said. “I love being around him because he takes in so much information and tries to apply it quickly.”

Sparked by a 32-point performance against Philadelphia, Lamb was named First Team All-Summer League. The Connecticut standout said he worked over the summer to improve his defense and movement away from the ball.

“Now my mindset has kind of changed to where I want to guard people,” Lamb said. “I’m going to score [with] the ball, but defense was where I needed to work.”

In addition to Lamb, Fisher was clutch in the postseason last year, veteran defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha returns in a contract year with a new jersey number (25) and increased 3-point efficiency and rookie Andre Roberson will look to add scoring potential to his defensive and rebounding prowess.

Big questions
Fifth-year center-forward Serge Ibaka Fifth-year center-forward Serge Ibaka could stand to gain offensively from Westbrook’s absence.

Ibaka averaged 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last year and led the NBA for the third year in a row with 3.03 blocks per game.

In addition to being a superb mid-range jumper, Ibaka said he worked over the summer to improve his post play, looking to create his own shot.

Veteran center Kendrick Perkins took some heat for not finishing at the basket last year, a problem he said he addressed.

“I definitely went into the gym trying to get my shot up quicker, worked on my touch around the basket,” Perkins said.

Center Hasheem Thabeet is coming off arguably his best pro year, and the veterans rave about New Zealand-born rookie Steven Adams. Free agent pickup Ryan Gomes is a 7-year veteran who owns career averages of 10.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 482 NBA games. Collison, the team’s plus-minus savant, is entering his 10th year with the Thunder organization, the only pro team for which he has ever played.

 
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