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. But not this time. Stalking the baseline, behind enemy lines, was a familiar foe turned friend. It was Russell Westbrook, adorned in crimson, gliding in for an easy alley-oop dunk. A point guard accustomed to having the world on his shoulders is suddenly camping in the corner like a wing and finishing a lob like a big. Welcome to Russ’s new reality. Welcome to our new reality.
After 11 seasons in 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, I’d imagine, was hard to miss. Staring back at the void left by his departure, he saw two figures, embodying the type of player he could never and would never become. In Chris Paul, the Thunder acquired Westbrook’s philosophical antithesis, an archetypal star point guard. In Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC’s future franchise player, the Thunder landed Westbrook’s physical antithesis: a lithe, spindly playmaker operating in unique time signatures, whose most extraordinary athletic gift is his ability to weaponize his lack of explosiveness. Thus, it appears OKC’s Westbrook antidote is not finding a passable facsimile for what he brought to the game, but recalibrating the Thunder’s understanding of “normal” after more than a decade of watching an iconoclast harness what made him special.
During that span, Westbrook went from sidekick to co-lead to omnipotent provider to tragic hero waylaid by time and, perhaps, stubbornness. But he was always Russ; thus, always a reflection of the Thunder. To have that Russness, that franchise-defining insistence, refracted back upon the team—to have to defend against it—is about as existential as it gets in the NBA regular season, let alone its first full week.
The highs and lows of Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City have made it so that just about any game could be construed as a classic Russ game; indeed, Westbrook turned in a vintage night against his old team: 21 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, and a game-high plus-19 in a 116-112 Rockets win. It wasn’t always picturesque; it never is with Russ. He missed his first five shots. He missed bunnies hoping to show up SGA. But 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, 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 shit right in the rookie’s face. Life changes in an instant.
In a sense, Russ as a Rocket is business as usual. He has, for the 12th season in a row, fielded 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 uniform palette may have changed, but ultimately a new season of Russell Westbrook begets the same old questions about identity and adaptation. The old questions have not yielded new answers. We dream of a Westbrook who plays under control, but conventional notions of playing “under control” are incongruous to the way in which Westbrook comports himself. What does it mean to play within yourself when within yourself lies a fire that burns twice as hot as what’s displayed on the surface? How do you change that?
Change, in the interim, hasn’t looked like change at all. If anything, the Rockets have provided a runway (and the proper infrastructure) 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, baby. Three games in and the Rockets are playing faster than they’ve ever played—hell, faster than any team D’Antoni has ever coached. 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 lowest time of possession, taking up only 12.3 seconds of the shot clock per offensive possession, according to Inpredictable, making them the most expedient offense, outpacing league average by a second and a half (and the Cavaliers’ putrid offense by three).
D’Antoni is staggering James Harden and Westbrook for large portions of the game to ensure that at least one elite playmaker is on the floor at all times, creating a stylistic Jekyll-and-Hyde situation that might cause whiplash. 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 throttle on the baton pass, to take advantage of Russ’s grab-and-go mentality. All the hallmarks of a Russ-led team are there: the skying defensive rebounds that immediately convert into breakaway opportunities; the cotton shots; the crosscourt whip passes to shooters in the corner as Westbrook channels his Hyperloop momentum to a dead stop. But there are also early signs of Russ showing a little more. With just under four minutes in the second quarter of Monday night’s game against the Thunder, Westbrook dashed toward Harden on the right wing from the top of the key, setting up a dribble handoff situation between two MVPs and creating an easy three-point play for Harden. When two supermassive black holes merge, their collision creates gravitational waves that ripple through space and time; when Westbrook and Harden operate in a two-man game, their collective gravity does something awfully similar.
I’ve collected quotes over the years of Westbrook explaining his job and how he defines the position. Given how his approach to the game strays so far from positional norms, it’s educational to get even the vaguest sense of how Russ sees his place on the floor. His job is to go out there and compete. It’s to get to the ball before the guy next to him. It’s to do everything. What do you give the guy who had everything on his shoulders? A break. A new vantage. It will take Westbrook time to get used to all the space he’s afforded just as it’ll take time for his teammates to know where to be stationed—the Rockets currently have a negative net rating when Russ is in the game without Harden—but like most years, it seems D’Antoni knows what he needs to do to get the most out of his point guard(s). “We’re going to let him be Westbrook. That’s our guideline,” D’Antoni told USA Today. “It’s not up to us to change his game. He’s played well. We just want him at that level.”
Westbrook has been asked to change his game his entire career. That persistence can feel like a buffer being set up, preparing for an indeterminate collapse. Westbrook’s tense, bounding style forces spectators to focus on the present moment, but to engage with Russ in all his uniqueness is to entertain fatalistic notions about his future. What makes him such a compelling figure in basketball is just how finite of a life span his specific powers have. Westbrook plays like he’s trying to outrun his own ghost. He’s been successful his entire career, but we think we know how it’ll end.
Eventually, the wear and tear on his body will minimize his athletic will. One day, the cotton shot will grow coarse. One day, all the extra energy that goes into his crossovers and drives to the rim won’t draw the attention of three or four defenders. One day, the rage he seems driven by won’t manifest physically on the hardwood, and will be left to ferment on the bench. That foresight can be a damper, but it can also ground the experience of watching Russ right now. To let Westbrook be Westbrook in 2019 and beyond is to sit in the present and be amazed, for better and worse, that neither time nor place has shifted the foundation of one of the NBA’s most fascinating players ever.