By BRIAN MAHONEY
AP Basketball Writer
Once Russell Westbrook headed to Houston, the Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be headed toward a rebuild.
The team Westbrook returns to face this week doesn’t look like a team headed for the lottery. It’s playing like one Westbrook might see again in the postseason.
The Thunder welcome back their former point guard Thursday, with both doing just fine since going their separate ways last summer.
That’s not a surprise for Westbrook, given that he was sent to join former MVP — and one-time Oklahoma City teammate — James Harden on a high-scoring contender. He has scored 20 or more points in 12 straight games, with three straight of at least 30 late last month, and averaged 27.8 in that span to raise his average to 24.1.
He said his return would be emotional because of how much Oklahoma City and the organization meant to him, but he didn’t want to detail much leading into it.
“I don’t want to get that much into before the game and on and on, but after the game we can discuss whatever you like,” he said Monday at practice.
With Harden seemingly running away toward another league scoring title, the Rockets went into the first full week of 2020 tied for second place in the Western Conference. Down in seventh place were the Thunder, who had won five in a row before losing 120-113 in Philadelphia on Monday.
Before that, they were on a 14-4 surge after a 6-11 start. Billy Donovan was Western Conference coach of the month in December after the Thunder went 11-4, and nearly saw his team rally for another win Monday.
“We dug ourselves a little bit of a hole, and we’ve had that happen before where we’ve gotten down, but these guys always fight back,” Donovan said.
The Thunder had already sent Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers when they dealt Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul and four first-round picks. Paul has been combining with super sub Dennis Schröder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, acquired along with Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers, for nearly 60 points per game during the 18-game stretch.
Westbrook fell one assist shy of a triple-double in October in his first meeting against Oklahoma City.
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH THIS WEEK
Denver at Dallas, Wednesday. Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic might both throw a couple incredible passes en route to triple-doubles.
Houston at Atlanta, Wednesday. With James Harden and Trae Young, the game features two of the NBA’s top four scorers and a chance to turn into a shootout.
Boston at Philadelphia, Thursday. The struggling 76ers could use a good win, and on national TV against one of their biggest rivals would be a good place to get it.
Cleveland at Detroit, Thursday. The teams aren’t any good, but with Kevin Love and Andre Drummond in the trade rumor mill, at least there’s something to talk about.
San Antonio at Toronto, Sunday. DeMar DeRozan returns again to his old home, where an NBA championship banner now hangs.
TOUGH TRAIL FOR BLAZERS
The Trail Blazers spent New Year’s Eve in New York, though they certainly weren’t in a celebratory mood.
Portland is a frustrated team, one that thought it left its troubles behind last month, only to see them get worse to start 2020.
The Trail Blazers lost to the Knicks in the opener of a long trip, giving them a five-game skid immediately after they’d won four in a row and appeared headed in the right direction.
“You start slow, you’re like, ‘All right, it’s just the beginning, it’s going to take some time,’” point guard Damian Lillard said, “and then you play better, it don’t work out and then you have another rough stretch.
“So that part is the most frustrating. But I think we’ve got to be prepared for even if it’s this way, up and down the whole season, we’ve got to make sure that we’re in it to continue to fight. Just because, even though it’s like this, we’re in a playoff race. So that’s a reason for us to keep fighting.”
The Blazers reached the Western Conference finals last season but are just 15-22 heading another tough game on their trip Tuesday at Toronto. They are lucky the bottom of the West has so many struggling teams, or they might have fallen way back in their quest for a playoff spot.
Injuries have been a big problem, as a team still without Jusuf Nurkic lost Rodney Hood and Zach Collins earlier this season. Portland signed Carmelo Anthony in November and he has played well after a year absence, but Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum both said the Blazers just haven’t been consistent enough.
They finish their five-game trip Thursday and Minnesota before they finally head home — though a game against league-leading Milwaukee in their first game back isn’t exactly an easy way to settle in. The Blazers believe they can solve their problems, though acknowledge that they have a lot of them.
“It’s not where we want to be. It’s a tough situation to be in, but this is what it is,” Lillard said. “For us, we’ve got a lot to figure out. Seems like it’s something new every game but that’s why we’re professionals. Our job is to try to find a solution and keep working, keep playing. That’s what we do.”
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