WICHITA, Kan.—Count Thunder head coach Scott Brooks and superstar Kevin Durant as two people in the camp of not being surprised by Derrick Rose’s impressive preseason.
But while Durant is a friend of Rose and Brooks has a great respect for the Chicago native, some of their praise might also be wishful thinking, as Oklahoma City awaits the eventual return of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, a similarly-styled player to Rose, from his own knee injury, which occurred in last spring’s playoffs. Even before Rose scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to close out Wednesday night’s Bulls win over Oklahoma City at Intrust Bank Arena, the pair were raving about the former league MVP.
“There’s just players that have that ‘it.’ He’s one of them. He’s never going to be denied by injury, bad game, whatever. He’s just going to always bring it. He’s one of those guys. I knew he’d be back,” said Durant, a close friend and offseason workout partner of Rose. “I mean, you see him. It’s preseason, but he hasn’t lost a step and great players, they put in overtime and I think that’s what he’s done this past year, being hurt. He put in extra work and I know just working out with him this summer, he always strives for perfection. You’ve got to love a player like that.”
Brooks chimed in: “He’s been outstanding. He’s right there with the best players in the league. Obviously, he’s one of the hardest workers. He has the skill set and toughness. And what I see so far, he’s obviously an MVP candidate.
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The coach went on to make a statement that seemed to have a direct correlation to Westbrook’s situation.
“You can come back now and be at that level. Years ago, you have major surgery and it’s hard to come back. All the medical and training staffs that teams have allows that to happen. He’s going to go down for many, many years as one of the best players,” he said. “We feel very confident [about Westbrook’s recovery]. I said a couple days ago, seeing him he’s improving every day. He has to pass the medical benchmarks that we have. But everything is going really well with Russell. He’s as hard of a worker as anybody I’ve ever been around and he cares about what he does and his team. Those are things that help you during that process.”
Westbrook is reportedly dunking in practice, so Brooks’ words are hardly far-fetched, but until the explosive athlete returns, Durant believes the Thunder can’t sit around and pine for him.
“We’ve just got to play. Of course we’re not going to have him here, but we’ve got to rely on each other. We’ve got to rely on our system. We’ve just got to play,” he said. “Nobody’s going to make excuses for us, so we can’t hang our heads because have him. We’ve just really got to play. That’s all it comes down to.”
When asked if he had any advice to offer Westbrook—another close friend, though the two apparently didn’t cross paths over the summer in California, as they usually do—Rose kept it simple.
“Take his time,” he said. “He’s the only one who knows his body. There’s no need to force anything and attack every day of rehab like it’s your last day. Get everything you can get out of it every day.”
Rose believes that Westbrook will be the same player upon his return.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “He has that type of will and his frame, his body, I think it’s just going to help him become a better player.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained that in Rose’s case, the organization was prepared to face life without the superstar last season.
“Obviously we knew going into the season that we weren’t going to have him to start, so you could plan accordingly. Once we made our free-agent picks and the draft picks, and the changes to the team, you could plan, so it was different. Now, we didn’t know he would be out the entire season, but we planned as if he were going to be out the entire season and we felt that if we got him back, it would be a bonus. So sometimes that’s a little bit different than a player getting hurt during the season, where all of a sudden, it’s quick and sudden. So we had a few months to say, ‘Okay, what’s our best chance of winning and this is how we can go about it, and these are the things we can try to take advantage of.’ So I think you study your team, and try to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are going to be,” Thibodeau said.
“Play to your strengths, cover up your weaknesses and figure out what gives you your best chance at winning, and there were a lot of benefits. Obviously we didn’t want Derrick to be out, but I think one of the byproducts was Jimmy playing a lot more. We ran a lot more offense through Noah, Boozer was terrific. Luol, you can’t say enough about.”
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Thibodeau thinks Oklahoma City, particularly with the development of young guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, who scored 22 and 14 points, respectively, as the Thunder’s starting backcourt Wednesday, will be able to manage without Westbrook for the time being.
“They’re a great team. You have to look at them having a great year last year. They took an unfortunate injury in the playoffs. You’re going to feel that. Jackson has gotten more time. He’s developed. When they get Westbrook back, they’re going to be who they are,” the coach said. “You’re looking at a [ex-Bulls swingman Thabo] Sefolosha, [center Kendrick] Perkins, [power forward Serge] Ibaka, [veteran reserve big man Nick] Collison, [backup point guard Derek] Fisher, that team is well built. They have some young guys they’re getting a look at, Jeremy Lamb. They’re talented. Steven Adams is a young kid they drafted, an athletic big.”
In the meantime, just having Durant alone will keep the Thunder in some games. As scintillating a talent as Rose is, he confessed to being mesmerized by his friend’s game.
“Sometimes you get caught up into seeing what he’s going to do out there because he’s that good and for us, it’s challenging because that’s our first time facing a scorer like that and of course, he’s hard to defend,” he said of the scorer, who had 22 points on efficient 6-for-12 shooting Wednesday. "He’s passing the ball great, so he’s been learning.”