If you watched Russell Westbrook in the Thunder's recent game against the Wizards, you might think nothing has changed.
Another bad night: 4-of-16 from the field, 13 points, five turnovers. So when Nene Hilario literally and figuratively pushed Westbrook and both received their second technicals of the game and were ejected, it was as if someone had done Oklahoma City a favor.
It seemed as if Westbrook learned nothing about shot selection, decision making or restraint during his time away from the game. It seemed as if the Thunder were doing themselves and their fan base a disservice by relying on Westbrook as a leader. Especially after the team went on a 14-4 run to force OT after he was ejected late in the fourth quarter.
The haters -- the ones who made Westbrook No. 11 on Complex.com's 2012 Most Hated Players in the NBA Today list -- could be heard joyously screaming, "Just look at what happened the minute Westbrook was no longer in the game!"
True, in an isolated incident, the Thunder came together once Westbrook was ejected. And they won.
But this is not about one game.
Statistical evidence supports that Westbrook's return through four games hasn't lived up to the billing (averaging 19 points on 34 percent shooting and 4.5 turnovers per game). Yet he means more to the Thunder than just numbers. Oklahoma City can find ways to win (certain) games without him, but while Westbrook was recovering from that meniscus tear in his right knee, the Thunder's record was 8-10 (4-3 in the preseason). They were living in a state of Kathy Bates: misery.
The injury that took Westbrook out of last season's playoffs and made him miss the beginning of this season has healed. "Sasha Fierce" (as Kevin Durant likes to call Westbrook) has returned -- in all of his infinite and infuriating glory. So far, Oklahoma City's record is 4-0 since Westbrook's return. And while the haters and nonbelievers are still gonna hate on Westbrook for all that he doesn't do right, his value and importance to the success of the franchise can no longer be questioned. His return has caused the best player versus most important player arguments to resurface.
For Oklahoma City, the energy is back in the building. It's kinetic -- filled with potential. The necessary contrast Westbrook provides -- the fire to Durant's ice -- has returned. Westbrook's presence keeps the Thunder from settling onto a one-dimensional offense based off Durant's almost God-given ability to score. The attack mode mentality Westbrook provides has been reset.
The injury is arguably the best thing that could have happened for -- not to -- both Westbrook and OKC. It allowed for appreciation of Westbrook's true importance to set in. It gave many of us -- the media and so-called experts who claim to know the game better than those who play and coach it -- the opportunity to finally see what life would be like for the Thunder without Russell running things.
From the beginning, Westbrook really was never given a fair chance to get to this point. As the disdain of his play grew, so did the misunderstanding. The injury has been a blessing undisguised.
So what if his shooting percentage is down, and he has yet to find his groove? Doesn't matter. The W's are starting to pile back up. The swag is creeping back into the Thunder's behavior. The fear factor is starting to show on opposing teams. While Durant makes the Thunder great, Westbrook makes them dangerous.
Without him, they are incomplete. Without him, the NBA is less interesting.
So from this point on can the "Westbrook is impeding Durant's development" complaints stop? Can the "Westbrook's not playing the point as it should be played" arguments cease? Can the "he's the not being a 'pass first' point guard" assessments end? Can the "Westbrook takes bad shots and makes bad decisions," fault-finding be finished? Can the "he's not the best player on the team and too often thinks he is" judgments disappear?
Truth has been confirmed that OKC is better with Westbrook than without him. The Thunder are better with him as he is than they are with him trying to be a player he is not.
"There are two things that [Westbrook] does at a high level," coach Scott Brooks told The Associated Press after Westbrook's first game back. "He wins. He's a winner. The guy plays the game like it's supposed to be played. It's not always going to be perfect, but he plays with everything he has every single night. To me that's inspiring. The second thing is leadership. It's taken him some time to get that. Now he is our leader."
In this Age of Efficiency, intangibles often get lost. These things aren't quantifiable: energy, the ability to create confidence in others just by being on the floor, providing both balance and fear, the way Westbrook complements Durant and hides some of the otherwise blatant flaws in KD's game. These factors all get lost in the numbers games people play.
Perhaps Westbrook, without meaning to, summed it up best when The Oklahoman asked about his shoving matches with Nene after Sunday's game. "Did we win?" Westbrook asked.
They've done nothing but win since he got back. In the end, that's the only number that needs to concern people.
For years, ever since he slid into that Oklahoma City uniform and changed the arc, trajectory, culture and promise of basketball for the organization, Russell Westbrook has been scrutinized play-to-play while most others are assessed game-to-game or week-to-week.
Put away your microscopes and hyper-criticisms, people. Westbrook's worth to his team has finally been appraised. Now we all have to just deal with it.