OKLAHOMA CITY — During their resurgence, the Celtics have taken pride in their balance. They know that numerous players are capable of carrying the team for stretches, and that there are numerous options when a winning shot is needed.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's attack, meanwhile, is more obvious. But when you have Russell Westbrook on your team, that transparency is not really a bad thing. With Kevin Durant still sidelined with a foot injury, Westbrook has taken over.
"Obviously, he's one of the MVP candidates," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Westbrook. "He's having a great year, and he's a load in the backcourt and in transition."
Westbrook entered Wednesday night's game against the Celtics averaging 27.5 points, 8.4 assists, and 7.3 rebounds this season, all career highs. He also had four triple-doubles in his team's last 10 games.
Westbrook continued his fine play as the Thunder defeated the Celtics, 122-118. He scored 36 points and added 10 assists.
"He's just so aggressive, so assertive," Stevens said. "Clearly as competitive as all get-out, and arguably the best athlete in the game. You add all that together and it's a lethal combination. He's really terrific."
Oklahoma City entered Wednesday tied with the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth in the Western Conference standings.
On Tuesday night, Celtics rookie Marcus Smart made a quick trip to Stillwater, Okla., to wish his former teammates luck in the NCAA Tournament. No. 9-seeded Oklahoma State faces No. 8 Oregon on Friday.
In 2013, Smart's freshman year, the fifth-seeded Cowboys lost to the 12th-seeded Ducks in the opening round. Smart was 5 for 13 from the floor and 4 for 8 from the free throw line in that game.
"We owe them one," Smart said. "My freshman year we played Oregon and we lost. And that was pretty much one of the reasons I decided to come back [for my sophomore year]."
Smart, who played for Oklahoma State for two seasons, said he enjoyed his return here this week. He received a nice ovation from the Oklahoma City crowd during pregame introductions.
"I spent a lot of time here and have a lot of memories here," Smart said. "Coming back is an emotional thing."
Smart played well Wednesday night, scoring a career-high 25 points and adding 9 rebounds and 5 assists.
Stevens said point guard Isaiah Thomas's bruised back felt "much better" Wednesday, but added that Thomas probably will miss the Celtics' weekend games vs. the Spurs and the Pistons. Stevens had said he was hopeful Thomas could return Sunday vs. Detroit.
"He's still got a lot of swelling and he's still sore," Stevens said.
"I mean, he's still really hurting. It's frustrating for him, because I know he really wants to play and I know he wants to play on this trip."
Thomas, the Celtics' leading scorer at 21.4 points per game, suffered the injury when he fell after being fouled in the fourth quarter of the March 9 win at Miami. The Celtics entered Wednesday night's game having won four in a row without Thomas.
Brooks looks back
Thunder coach Scott Brooks went 22-47 during his first year, the 2008-09 season. A year later, he guided Oklahoma City to a 50-32 record and a playoff berth.
Stevens's turnaround has not quite been that sudden in his second year, but he also doesn't have Westbrook and Durant on his roster. Brooks said the Thunder's development did not come easily.
"We did a lot of work in the gym. There was a lot of sweat equity," Brooks said. "We had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and we developed them. Obviously their skill sets and their work ethic [were important], but we developed them as a group. Collectively, we were all in it together, and [general manager Sam Presti] has done a lot of great things and made a lot of great pickups along the way. It was all about work every day. There's no magic solution. There's not a magic drink you can take and all of a sudden be a good player and a good team."
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.