After Puzzling Start to Season, Russell Westbrook Plays Like an MVP vs. Warriors

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterNovember 23, 2017

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) react after Curry was called for a foul on Westbrook during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

If this season's Oklahoma City Thunder were an app on your phone, it'd be a public beta—an unfinished product with known bugs and glitches. It'd be considered version 3.0, with the 2012 Finals team and the 2016 Western Conference finalist as prior versions.

It's a group assembled for a specific purpose: to compete with the likes of Golden State and Houston in the NBA's Western Conference. It's also a product rushed to market without the benefit of continuity that those other supercharged teams have. Everyone from the players to the front office tried to caution that this project needed time.

"It's not something that comes together quickly, and you definitely can't skip steps," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said prior to training camp. "I can probably write the stories for you guys now when we lose a couple games or we drop a game that many people think we should win. We get that; that's all part of it."

For one night at least, Oklahoma City managed to squash some of the bugs that have plagued the club so far. And it came against the team it hopes to eventually overthrow.

With a month of regular-season games completed, the Thunder got their first crack at the Warriors on Wednesday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena and emerged with a 108-91 victory.

Oklahoma City entered the night as a sub-.500 team that has shown moments of brilliance yet was seemingly unable to put together a complete game in the month of November. On six occasions this month, the Thunder built double-digit, first-half leads only to wind up with a digit in the loss column.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Several reasons contributed to the Thunder's uneven start. The team's defense smothers opponents in the first quarter and slowly slips into one of the league's worst units as the game progresses. Carmelo Anthony, the league's fourth leading all-time active scorer, continued to lean on his ball-stopping habits. The bench was often the first reason why Oklahoma City kept losing large leads.

Another larger, and more significant, reason: Russell Westbrook seemed uncharacteristically puzzled in the early going.

The league's reigning MVP looked largely unrecognizable in Oklahoma City's first 16 games. Shots at the rim weren't falling. His patented explosive drives to the basket were less common. Pull-up shots near the free-throw line, ones he calls his "cotton shot," fell short. A career 82 percent free-throw shooter was hitting only 57 percent of those shots at one point.

Was Westbrook, who had a preseason platelet-rich plasma injection in his knee, playing through physical pain? Or was the notorious creature of habit disrupted by rule changes that threw off his free-throw routine? If so, had that crept into other parts of his game?

In the process of trying to integrate both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Westbrook seemed almost timid at times. He looked like he was thinking too much, as though he were calculating the square root of a large number while running a fast break. The man who played with the passion of Kevin Garnett in a smaller frame seemed unsettled.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  JANUARY 12:  Kevin Garnett #21 of the Minnesota Timberwolves handles the ball against Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 12, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
David Sherman/Getty Images

Against the Warriors, Westbrook looked a whole lot more like his last season self. And the Thunder may find their groove because of it.

The Thunder star dropped 34 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, multiple muscle flexes and a whole lot of trash talk on Golden State. Much of that was directed at former teammate and now-Warriors star Kevin Durant, though both tried to downplay the significance of the game beforehand.

However, it was clear both cared more than they'd ever admit. And though Westbrook's emotions can overwhelm him at times, he remained in check and seemed to channel that energy to his teammates.

"Oh yeah, he feeds off of anything," Durant said after the game when asked if Westbrook feeds off emotion. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he has his whole career."

"They brought the energy, and they brought the juice," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "[Westbrook's] a great player. He controlled the game; he dominated."

With Westbrook playing decisively, the offense flourished. Anthony scored 22 points, and George added 20. Neither looked like they were socialistically divvying up shots with Westbrook.

The energy was evident defensively as George played suffocating defense, notching four steals and 10 deflections, throwing the Warriors offense crooked. Steven Adams' physical presence in the paint further frustrated Golden State, helping limit the Warriors to just 41.3 percent shooting and only seven offensive rebounds.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 22: Paul George #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball against the Golden State Warriors  during the game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on November 22, 2017 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"The effort, the intensity, the way we played, just our disposition in the second half was very good," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "That's how we need to play. We did a lot of really good things, but there are things that we can get better at."

If Westbrook has rediscovered his comfort level again, the Thunder may have found a patch for one of its flaws. How well it holds depends on him.

"I go out and compete," Westbrook said after the game. "I'm gonna go out and play at a high level like I've been saying since day one, and that's what I do."