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Big night at the United Center as Bulls prepare for Russell Westbrook and the return of Craig Sager

The Bulls know exactly what is coming to the United Center this evening: The baddest man on the NBA planet, mask and all.

“Don’t know if you can necessarily confuse Russ, as good as he is and as long as he’s played,’’ veteran guard Kirk Hinrich said, when asked about dealing with Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook. “He’s on a different level right now so as a team we have to find a way to somewhat slow him down and get the job done.’’

“Different level’’ was one way to describe Westbrook, who will again be wearing a protective mask after suffering a facial fracture.

In beating the 76ers on Wednesday night, Westbrook registered his fourth-consecutive triple-double. But this one included a 49-point, 16-rebound outing, to go along with 10 assists. He became just the third player in NBA history to register a triple-double with at least 40 points in consecutive games, joining Michael Jordan and Pete Maravich.

“Pretty amazing,’’ Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Westbrook. “He’s on a big-time roll. When you look at what he’s doing for his team, that team started off slowly obviously because of all the injuries, but the way they’re playing right now, they’re playing as well as anybody in the league. It’s not only his scoring, but it’s what he’s doing for the team. We know we’ve got our hands full.’’

But Westbrook is almost a secondary story, considering tonight’s game will also mark the return to the court for TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager, who had been battling acute myeloid leukemia for almost a year.

“I’m very grateful,’’ Sager said after the Bulls shootaround. “Very thankful and I got up today and it was like the first day of school. You’re a little nervous. I’ve done it before but everything’s a little different. It’s a long 11 months, believe me. But I was very fortunate. I had some doctors I believed in, had some good care. I’m back. A little bit lighter, I don’t know if you can see it on TV but I lost close to 50 points, got some of it back, but I had to get some new clothes because all those great things I had before don’t fit anymore.’’

Known for his flashy suits, Sager will be wearing Bulls colors – black and red – and felt that it was only right to do that.

“I have a lot of love for my Chicago Bulls,’’ Sager said. “Normally, you don’t show a lot of favoritism for one or the other team, but since Chicago means so much to me and coming back here, I said I have to show some love to the Bulls and to Chicago. I don’t think I’ll get booed by too many people for what I’m wearing here tonight.’’

Definitely not Thibodeau.

“That’s one of the great stories in the league,’’ Thibodeau said of Sager. “He’s a big part of this NBA family. We’re all thrilled to have him back. He’s been a great inspiration to a lot of people. His courage, his determination, the way he’s fought, so we’re just glad to have him back.’’