Thunder G Westbrook putting up MVP-caliber numbers in Durant's absence

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook has taken his game up a notch since Kevin Durant's latest injury.

In six games since Durant's latest setback, Westbrook has averaged 30.2 points, 8.1 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 3.2 steals for Oklahoma City. The three-time All-Star's overall scoring average of 28 points would lead the league if he had played in enough games to qualify, but he missed 14 games early in the season with a broken bone in his right (non-shooting) hand. A player must compete in 70 percent of his team's contests to officially top a category.

Westbrook always has been a highlight waiting to happen, but this year, a greater mastery of the game's nuances has complemented his freakish explosiveness. He is looking for his teammates more often, taking fewer three pointers, using his athleticism to get to the free throw line more frequently and playing steady defense consistently.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks announced that Durant will return Wednesday night against Phoenix, but Westbrook already has left his impression.

"It's always a tough matchup when you see a top point guard, especially him," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said after both scored 40 points in their matchup last week. "I respect him right up there at the top with any player in the league. Not just point guards — with any player in the league, because of how tough it is to play against him on both ends of the floor."

With Durant out with a broken bone in his right foot, Westbrook opened the season with 38 points against Portland before getting hurt in the second game against the Los Angeles Clippers. In his first game back, Westbrook scored 32 points in 24 minutes in a win over the New York Knicks. With Durant sidelined, Westbrook had 34 points, 11 assists and five steals in a Christmas Day win at defending champion San Antonio. He recently had a stretch of games in which he scored at least 26 points snapped at 11.

He has increased his defensive focus, too. His 2.3 steals per game would be ahead of the league leader if he had played enough games.

"He's been locked in for longer stretches," Thunder forward Nick Collison said. "Just his basic defense, starting with pressuring the ball and staying in front of his man and being in the right spots — he's been a lot more consistent with that, and I think that's part of maturing for him and realizing how important it is for him to play both ends."

As an offensive player, Westbrook's greatest improvement has been in shot selection. He attempted 4.7 3-pointers per game last season, but that average is down to 3.1. Instead, he's driving to the hoop, drawing fouls and shooting 9.5 free throws per game.

"It's (the 3-pointer) not always a great shot for myself or for my team, so I've got to do a better job of taking those out," Westbrook said. "My advantage is attacking, regardless of who's in front of me, and I've got to use my advantage to help my team and myself."

Westbrook still has his moments. He's shooting about 40 percent in the fourth quarter this season, and his assists drop significantly late in games. He still sometimes forces things, especially when Durant isn't playing. But his immense talent and overall play makes those moments more tolerable.

"He's had a great month of shooting the ball," Brooks said. "He's had a couple of off shooting nights, which every player will go through. His shot selection for the month of December, since he's been back, has been good," he said. "All in all, he's played great basketball for us, and put us in position to win a lot of games."

Westbrook's increased maturity has extended beyond the court. When things don't go well, he has accepted responsibility. After he got a technical foul late in regulation in the loss to Portland that helped fuel the Trail Blazers' comeback, he took the hit.

"That was my fault," he said. "I think that was the turning point in the game, for us and our energy. I didn't think I deserved it (the technical), but I've got to do a better job of controlling my emotions, especially when the game is on the line like that. I take the blame for that. It turned the whole game around for them and it gave them a chance to win the game."

More often than not, Westbrook's play has led to wins. The Thunder are 15-17 overall, but 11-7 with Westbrook in the lineup.

"The game is continuing to slow down for him, like it does for all players," Brooks said. "I like what he's doing. He's been able to lead us game after game after game. He's a better player all the way around."


Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

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