By Cody Westerlund-
CHICAGO (CBS) – As Thunder point Russell Westbrook zoomed around the United Center floor Monday night, slicing through the defense in the half-court and exploding past foes in transition, you couldn’t help but think you’d seen this all before.
Because, of course, you had. A most freakish of NBA athletes running the show? That used to be the calling of the beloved Derrick Rose, before two knee injuries in 19 months apart robbed Chicago of its star and left a future of championship chasing in doubt.
Now it’s Westbrook’s mission, as he showed in Oklahoma City’s 97-85 win against Chicago on Monday. As he tends to, Westbrook was everywhere in recording a near triple-double with 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
He dove on the floor, pulled down rebounds one-handed among the big boys and rammed into Kirk Hinrich in trying to sneakily jump an inbounds pass in the backcourt. He hoisted early jumpers in the shot clock, still not shy about being Russell Westbrook.
“You never know what you’re going to get from him – he’s a live wire,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “He’s been like that since I played against him at UCLA (Gibson went to USC). He’s so athletic, and you just got to hope he has a rough night.”
Westbrook’s display came about a month after he returned from his third procedure in nine months in his recovery from a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee last April. While the injury doesn’t completely mirror Rose’s troubles – he tore the medial meniscus in his right knee in November, leaving him out for this season, after he tore his left ACL in April 2012 – it nonetheless ties their arcs together, and the two have discussed their recoveries, Westbrook said.
“Very confident,” Westbrook told reporters prior to Monday’s game when asked if Rose will return to form. “I’ve talked to him numerous times. He’s a tough guy, as you guys know. He does a good job of coming out competing. It’s unfortunate he had to be hurt and out another year. But he’s going to come back the same D-Rose he was before.”
Reflecting the edge he brings the Thunder, Westbrook was defiant in media session when asked if he’ll be back to his old self by the playoffs.
“You think I’m back to my old self now?” he responded.
Told he may have a little rust, Westbrook said, “Where?”
That Westbrook looked so much like himself and moved so freely and effortlessly in the hours that followed – and in the 11 games since his return on Feb. 20, a stretch in which he’s averaged 21.5 points, 7.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds in just 26.9 minutes per game – can only be promising for Bulls fans, who understandably worry if Rose will ever be the same.
The hope would be, even if Rose isn’t his pre-injury MVP self in which he was fearless and sometimes wreckless, that he can mirror what Westbrook has worked back to: a star whose combination of speed, acceleration, quick-cut agility and vertical explosiveness is still nearly unmatched in the NBA and provides a dimension to the game that only a select few foes can also boast.
In harmony, the Bulls have stated their belief that Rose will accomplish just that. Leader Joakim Noah has praised Rose’s work ethic, but it was just two weekends ago Noah admitted part of the season’s battle was mental, having to fend off the thoughts of what could be with Rose healthy.
It’s why there seemed to be wistful air in the United Center on Monday, when from the opposite sideline the Bulls received a reminder of what they’re missing.
And just perhaps a ray of hope, too.
“You have to have confidence in yourself and health and knowing the rehab and all the work you put in has paid off,” Westbrook said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.