Russell Westbrook’s Game Never Changed
It finally felt real with about seven minutes to go in the third quarter of Russell Westbrook’s first-ever game against the Thunder. James Harden ran a pick-and-roll with Clint Capela at the top of the 3-point line, drawing the attention of all five OKC defenders before lofting a soft floater typically reserved for Capela’s guiding hands.
Not this time, though.
Guarding the baseline, behind enemy lines, was a familiar foe turned friend. It was Russell Westbrook, gliding in for an easy alley-oop dunk.
This point guard was accustomed to having the world on his shoulders is suddenly camping in the corner like a wing and finishing a lob like a big.
After 11 seasons playing for Oklahoma City dismantling the laws of traditional point guard play, Westbrook, just two weeks shy of 31, gazed upon his former team from a new perspective Monday night.
The irony was pretty hard to miss.
Beginning from the void that he left when he departed, Russell saw two figures, embodying the type of player he could never and would never become.
During that time, Russell went from sidekick to a hero for Thunder.
He was always Russ and was always a reflection of the Thunder.
To have that ‘Russness’, is a franchise-defining insistence that reflects back upon the team.
The highs and lows of Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma have been construed as a classic Russ game indeed.
He turned in a vintage night against his old team with 21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, and a game-high plus-19 in a 116-112 Rockets win.
He missed his first five shots.
There were classic moments that trace the arc of the Thunder’s entire franchise vision: On one second-half possession, Westbrook scored easily on a layup, blowing past young, raw athletes Hamidou Diallo and rookie Darius Bazley. These are the types of players OKC has shown a proclivity for drafting ever since hitting the jackpot with Russ himself.
He got a technical for talking bad right in the rookie’s face. Life changes in an instant.
In a sense, Russel will always be all about business as usual. He has been for the 12 seasons in a row.
He’s now flooded with questions about how he plans to change his game, how he figures to channel his game-breaking intensity into something more palatable.
The teammates and the uniform that he’s wearing may have changed, but ultimately a new season of Russell Westbrook begets the same old questions.
The Rockets have provided a platform for Russ to be himself completely. In turn, Westbrook has given coach Mike D’Antoni a new lease on his career-defining offensive mentality: six seconds or less.
With three games in the Rockets are playing faster than they’ve ever played. Across their first three games, the Rockets are averaging 107.7 possessions per 48 minutes, tacking on an additional 9.3 possessions per 48 minutes compared to their regular-season average last year.
Pace is one way to measure a team’s speed; time of possession is another. Coming into the game, the Rockets led the league in the lowest time of possession, taking up only 12.3 seconds of the shot clock per offensive possession.
This makes them the most expedient offense, outpacing league average by a second and a half.
D’Antoni is trying to make James Harden and Westbrook stumble for large portions of the game to ensure that at least one elite playmaker is on the floor at all times.
It comes down to each star’s individual genius. ‘James Harden is, like, the best half-court player I’ve ever seen, honestly’, Rockets GM Daryl Morey said on the team’s media day. ‘And then Russell is maybe the best transition player, one of the best of all time, as well. If you put those things together, which I think we have a chance to do, now you’ve got something really special’.
When Westbrook runs the show with Harden on the bench, the Rockets try to go full perfect pass, to take advantage of Russ’s grab-and-go mentality.