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 w