March 14, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Russell Westbrook is playing the best basketball of his career, and he's helping new teammate Enes Kanter do the same.

Utah sent Kanter to Oklahoma City at the trade deadline, and Westbrook stepped forward to connect with the young center. Soon Kanter and Westbrook were running the pick-and-roll like they'd been playing together for years.

A rejuvenated Kanter is averaging 15.5 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field since being traded. His smile broadens while he raves about his new point guard and mentor.

''I have no words,'' Kanter said. ''He has been unbelievable. He is helping his teammates, he is scoring the ball, and he is rebounding. He has been really good.''

This season, in an 11-game stretch that reigning MVP Kevin Durant has missed with pain in his surgically repaired right foot, Westbrook has scored 30 points or more seven times and posted six triple-doubles to force his way into this year's MVP discussion.

If this sounds familiar, it should: A year ago, it was Westbrook who was out. Durant went on a glorious two-month run, averaging 35 points while Westbrook recovered from knee surgery, on the way to the MVP award.

Since the All-Star break, Westbrook has averaged a triple-double - 32.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 11.1 assists - and taken the league's scoring lead from Houston's James Harden. This mind-blowing run followed his 41-point outburst in the All-Star Game that earned him MVP honors.

Westbrook has used his rare athletic ability and sheer will to keep his team in the playoff hunt as it prepares for Durant's scheduled return in a week or two. He will get a chance to strengthen his MVP resume before a national television audience when the Thunder host the Chicago Bulls on Sunday afternoon.

''Westbrook is playing at a high level,'' Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. ''I don't know if people really understand what he's doing. The way he's filling up the stat sheet and winning ball games with some key guys out - what he is doing on a nightly basis is very impressive, and puts him in that MVP category.''

Westbrook was the Western Conference Player of the Month in February. The Thunder went 9-3, despite Durant missing seven of those games.

''I don't know if anybody's playing better,'' Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Westbrook. ''He has to be (in the MVP conversation). He's dominant. He's carried a team, for the most part, all year. K.D.'s (Kevin Durant) been in and out, which is very difficult for a team to ever get their rhythm during that time period. And yet, they keep winning.''

Westbrook insists his role isn't much different without Durant - he does the same things, but more of them. Oklahoma City is battling with New Orleans for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings. Westbrook said his focus remains on leading the team and winning.

''My mindset's the same as it's been since I came into the league,'' he said. ''Play hard every night, give it all I have, regardless of what's going on and how many injuries we have.''

In the first game after the All-Star break without Durant, Westbrook scored 33 points in a victory at Charlotte. The next game, he had 21 points, a career-high 17 assists and eight rebounds in a win against Denver. He had 10 assists in the second quarter, the most by any player in any quarter in more than a year, and he did it in just 8 minutes and 40 seconds.

He had triple doubles against Indiana and Phoenix, then had 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in a loss at Portland on Feb. 27. He broke a bone in his right cheek late in the Portland game when teammate Andre Roberson accidentally kneed him in the face, but he only missed one game after surgery. When he returned, donning a protective mask, he posted 49 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

It was the most points in a triple-double since Larry Bird scored 49 in 1992. It also was his fourth straight triple-double, the most since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989. The back-to-back 40-point triple-doubles were the first pair since Jordan accomplished the feat in 1989.

After the triple-double streak ended in a 43-point game at Chicago, Westbrook scored 30 points, matched a career high with 17 assists and snagged 11 rebounds in a 108-104 win over Toronto. His latest triple-double was a 29-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound effort in a 113-99 win over Minnesota on Friday night.

''If you find somebody who has slowed him down, let me know,'' Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. ''It's definitely tough. You got to give him credit. Their best player is out and he's stepping up when they're fighting for a playoff spot.''

Well before the All-Star break, Westbrook had been attacking the basket more, shooting fewer 3-pointers and looking for his teammates more often. Westbrook offered a glimpse of what he might be capable of in January, notching a triple-double against Orlando. But before the February scoring outburst, Westbrook's stellar play was overshadowed by a back-and-forth with a local columnist during a postgame interview, racking up a league-leading technical foul total and missing 14 games with a broken bone in his left hand. As the calendar flipped, Westbrook became less confrontational and let the world focus on his game.

''I'm a normal guy, just like anybody else,'' Westbrook said. ''Obviously, I play the game differently from anybody else in the world - with a lot of emotion. It doesn't determine who I am as a person - if you know me, you know the type of guy I am - caring, unselfish, willing guy. I just want to do the right thing.''

Westbrook often has been criticized for his shot selection and decision making, so when Thunder coach Scott Brooks mentions his point guard's latest accomplishments, there often is a hint of `I told you so' in his voice. Before the season began, Brooks boldly proclaimed Westbrook the best point guard in the NBA.

''Russell's at a high level, but he's been playing this way for a long time, for a lot of years, and every year, like all the special players do, they come back a little bit better,'' Brooks said.

With Westbrook doing so much, it makes the game simple for his teammates.

''The way he's playing right now is incredible,'' Thunder forward Serge Ibaka said. ''He's making everything easy for us. Just be ready and catch the ball.''

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

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