It finally felt real with about seven minutes left in the third quarter of Russell Westbrook’s first game against the Thunder. James Harden made a pick-and-roll with Clint Capela at the top of the 3-point line, drawing the attention of all five OKC defenders before launching a soft float typically reserved for Capela’s guiding hands.
But not this time.
Protecting the bottom line, behind enemy lines, was a familiar foe turned friend. It was Russell Westbrook, sliding down for an easy alley-oop dunk.
This base who was used to having the world on his shoulders, is suddenly camping in the corner like a wing and finishing a balloon like a big one.
After 11 seasons playing for Oklahoma City dismantling the laws of the traditional base game, Westbrook, just two weeks shy of his 31st birthday, looked at his former team in a new light Monday night.
The irony was hard enough to ignore.
Starting with the void he left when he left, Russell saw two figures, embodying the kind of player he could never and would never become.
During that time, Russell went from being a sidekick to a hero for Thunder.
It was always Russ and it was always a reflection of the Thunder.
Having that ‘Russianism’ is an insistence that defines the franchise and that is reflected in the team.
The ups and downs of Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma have been interpreted as a classic Russ game indeed.
It turned into a vintage night against his old team with 21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and an over-19 record in the Rockets’ 116-112 win.
He missed his first five shots.
There were classic moments that trace the arc of the entire Thunder franchise vision: On a second-half possession, Westbrook easily scored on a layup, beating young athletes Hamidou Diallo and rookie Darius Bazley. These are the types of players that OKC has shown a propensity to draft since winning the jackpot with Russ himself.
He received a technique for speaking evil directly to the rookie’s face. Life changes in an instant.
In a sense, Russel will always focus on business as usual. It has been for 12 seasons in a row.
You are now inundated with questions about how you plan to change your game, how you think you will channel the intensity of your game into something more enjoyable.
Teammates and the uniform he’s wearing may have changed, but ultimately, a new Russell Westbrook season begets the same old questions.
The Rockets have provided a platform for Russ to be completely himself. In turn, Westbrook has given coach Mike D’Antoni a new lease on his career-defining offensive mindset: six seconds or less.
With three games the Rockets are playing faster than they have ever played. In their first three games, the Rockets are averaging 107.7 possessions per 48 minutes, adding an additional 9.3 possessions per 48 minutes compared to their regular season average last year.
Pace is a way of measuring the speed of a team; the time of possession is another. Going into the game, the Rockets led the league in the shortest time of possession, occupying just 12.3 seconds of the shot clock for offensive possession.
This makes them the most desirable offense, outperforming the league average by a second and a half.
D’Antoni is trying to stumble James Harden and Westbrook for much of the game to make sure at least one elite playmaker is on the court at all times.
It all comes down to the individual genius of each star. “James Harden is honestly the best midfield player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said on the team’s media day. And then Russell is perhaps the best transitional player, one of the best of all time as well. If you put those things together, which I think we have the opportunity to do, now you have something really special. ‘
When Westbrook runs the show with Harden on the bench, the Rockets try to make a perfect pass to take advantage of Russ’s mentality.