If the dunks didn’t seem to punish the rim with the same ferocity, the post-jam snarls and stank-faces seemed less frequent, or the high-stepping and double-barrel-boom celebrations appeared subdued the first six weeks of the season, Russell Westbrook doesn’t want anyone to get it twisted. True, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a different look and feel than previous seasons because of a first-ever super-team soirée. And, the Thunder’s franchise cornerstone spent the early parts of this union getting Paul George and Carmelo Anthony acclimated to playing with a stick of dynamite in sneakers. The situation prompted an adjustment from the league’s reigning MVP, but Westbrook hadn’t suddenly become a different player.
“I was always Russ. I was always Russ,” Westbrook told Yahoo Sports. “That’s what people don’t understand.”
Russ is always going to be Russ, but there are different variants. And the lit, explosive one who has re-entered the MVP conversation over the past few months — the one who can put the team on his back and stuff stats while also letting George have some go-to-guy glory — is the one the Thunder will need to reach their desired return to relevance. Oklahoma City has been one of the more confusing teams this season, repeatedly following encouraging stretches that turn doubters into believers with head-scratchers that do the opposite. Through the sometimes maddening starts and stops, Westbrook has never given up on the potential of this group.
“Always got confidence,” Westbrook told Yahoo Sports. “Never lose confidence in my teammates and myself. It’s ups and downs during the season, and I believe in these guys more than anything in the world.”
In his first and hopefully last season as a solo act, Westbrook binged on triple-doubles and raged against the mundane, scowling his way to personal acclaim and recognition that had previously eluded him. But the records and ridiculous stat lines were what he had to accept because little else was available with a team lacking the talent to actually contend. Westbrook wanted team success with a side of triple-doubles, not the other way around. So when general manager Sam Presti made the offseason moves for George and Anthony to reassure Westbrook that his faith in the organization was justified, the fiery franchise cornerstone felt personally responsible to make it work.
“I think at first it was hard for him. I mean, you’ve got a whole new team coming in, you’re the point guard, you feel a tremendous responsibility to raise the group and make guys feel comfortable and get them acclimated. And when you do that, the last person you think about is yourself,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told Yahoo Sports. “I think Russell, from Day 1, has tried to be extremely unselfish to try to get those guys comfortable, in terms of where they want the ball, how they like playing. I think his first inclination is, it’s his job to get those other guys involved and get them playing, and I think that’s what he tries to do all the time.”
Anthony hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2013, and George and Westbrook both had short postseason runs last season, but if this experiment failed, the bulk of the blame would fall on the guy who flaunts his pectorals with tattered sweatshirts and asks, “Why not?” Westbrook would never express the pressures he felt, but his play suggested otherwise. He missed a huge chunk of training camp because of a platelet-rich plasma procedure in his left knee and needed some time to regain his rhythm. Likewise, George and Anthony had to get in where they fit in — an unusual assignment for players accustomed to having teammates assume those roles around them.
“You got somebody else on your side who is going to go to war with you, going to compete with you. Somebody who wants to win, just as bad as you. That makes this process fun, joyful and makes it exciting,” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “Coming in, we all knew what we wanted to do. We all knew the goal. It was just, how are we going to go about that? I think now, we done found that rhythm, found that flow and everybody accepted that.”
Westbrook’s passion and intensity are often misinterpreted because he isn’t some angry, tunnel-visioned loner. He is demanding, but he’s also harder on himself, which made the early stumbles frustrating. Not only did Westbrook have to contend with criticism for the Thunder’s slow start, but he was also blamed for holding back former teammates like Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Enes Kanter, who have all blossomed since leaving him behind. Donovan believes the whole exercise in “Russ bashing” — and the claim that he couldn’t play nice with others — was misguided.
“He wants to win. He’s a team-first guy,” Donovan told Yahoo Sports about Westbrook, while acknowledging that new environments have worked out for the players used to get George and Anthony. “I think Russell was trying to find ways to make the group better.”
George had moments when he looked lost or simply disappeared in the first few weeks of this arrangement. He has since had more flashbacks to his ball-dominant days in Indiana, most notably a recent 43-point effort in a loss to Denver. His pending free agency looms over the franchise, but George has pushed back on speculation about him leaving for Los Angeles next summer by espousing the benefits of playing with Westbrook.
“It’s every play. It’s every night. It’s the same Russ. He’s never tired. He’s bringing that high energy every night,” George told Yahoo Sports. “When you put three guys together that have been a certain way throughout their careers, you’ve got to make those adjustments and you’ve got to figure out how to be yourself, within the team. And I think that’s what we’ve had to overcome.”
If George had the most difficult adjustment as an in-his-prime superstar, Anthony had the most dramatic one. Before the Thunder freed him from a dysfunctional relationship with the Knicks, Anthony was reluctant to play power forward or second — or third — fiddle. Questions about which version of Anthony would arrive in Oklahoma City have been answered. Instead of Playoff Melo or Hoodie Melo, the Thunder have extracted Accommodating Melo, a player willing to sacrifice shots and standing for the good of the team.
“I think that makes you accept it a little bit easier, knowing that winning is what I want to do at this point in my career,” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not so much about ego or pride. It’s about going out there and doing what I got to do.”
The Thunder have hit another rough patch of the season following a season-ending injury to Andre Roberson. Roberson’s value on the defensive end outweighs his deficiencies as a shooter and his absence increases the likelihood that Presti continues his annual tradition of finding perimeter help at Thursday’s trade deadline. Oklahoma City has made inquiries about Rodney Hood, a league source told Yahoo Sports. Any move the Thunder make would only serve as an ancillary piece in their journey. Westbrook remains the energy source, the force who will determine where this team goes.
“My job is to come out and make sure I make the game easy for them, regardless of what’s going on with my personal self. Just make sure that the game is going well for the guys that we have on our team,” Westbrook told Yahoo Sports. “My game is not predicated on whether I miss or make shots. It’s not defined by if I get a triple-double or if I score 30 points. I really don’t care. All I care about is winning. If we win, I’m good.”
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