Westbrook shines in season opener

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A number of people, actually, SO many people are talking about the 2016/17 season as one of “revenge” for Russell Westbrook. They cite the abandonment by Kevin Durant as a motivating factor in Russ going HAM for the upcoming season, taking no prisoners and running through anyone and anything on his path to the MVP. The narrative suggests that Westbrook will be using the new NBA season as his personal stage – to silence the critics and give the middle finger to his former running mate.

I don’t buy it. I mean, if I would feel jilted too – not just because KD left or even who he left the Thunder for, but for the added commentary. The snide remarks and low digs at his former franchise and “work friend”. That’s not Russ though, and opening night really showed that.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a VERY different situation. For the first time in nearly a decade, we don’t actually know what the future holds. People point to the period of time Durant was sidelined with a foot injury as some kind of blueprint as to what we can expect from both Westbrook (a triple double rampage, high usage rate, take no prisoners game plan etc), but they forget it was still a largely “understood” team. Sure, the mid-season trade brought Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters to town, but the “core” were still there.

In 2016/17, we actually have no idea what to expect from a team that lost Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant and Dion Waiters in the same off-season.

What we DO know, is that Russell Westbrook is the unquestioned leader of this team and franchise. He’s “The Man” and he has to “take turns” with no-one. In the short period of time after the defection of Durant and before the Westbrook extension, Thunder fans ran through a gamut of emotions. We never really knew where Russ stood – we do now. He’s ready for the challenge, will shy away from nothing and knows that the spotlight will shine brighter now as the sole superstar on consistently successful team.

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The Oklahoma City Thunder managed to work through and score themselves a win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of 82. It wasn’t overly pretty, but a win is a win – and there were plenty of really positive signs to go along with it. Victor Oladipo struggled but made a couple of nice plays when it mattered, Enes Kanter keeps giving you what you want with buckets and boards, Ersan Ilyasova was solid, rookies Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines were OK on debut and it looks like Steven Adams is going to feature a lot more on offence with 17 shot attempts on his way to 16 points.

What the first game of the season really gave us some though, was assurance. Russ is our guy.

Casual NBA fans (and Westbrook haters) have long felt that KD was the superstar and Russ was the high usage, ball dominant, inefficient “chucker” who relied on his athleticism to be effective. The off-season was littered with commentary about how Russ was going to play “so angry” that it would be to the detriment of the Thunder who would miss the playoffs. They blamed Durant’s departure firmly on the shoulders of Westbrook and have been rubbing their hands at the thought of OKC failing and Westbrook’s deficiencies coming to the forefront of mainstream media.

Opening night told a different story.

Russ was really impressive. He recorded a near triple double (Oladipo bobbled away what would have been Westbrook’s tenth assist), scoring 32 points while shooting over 50% from the floor. He orchestrated the offence, he taught the young guys on the sidelines and he controlled the tempo. And when the game was there to be won, he took it by the throat and crushed it. The stat sheet is impressive, but you really needed to watch the game to really gauge his performance and impact. It was anything but pretty and highlighted the fact that the Thunder are going to need to find other avenues to put points on the board – but it was pleasing to see him play the way he did.

Last night showed that Russell Westbrook is the hero that the Oklahoma City Thunder need. He is a leader, in heart, by example. With the franchise needing a “new” face and clear identity and direction, Westbrook did exactly what he knew how to do. He put the team on his back and carried them to victory. He empowered them, supported them, controlled them, lead them, motivated them. If this is the Russell Westbrook we get each and every night from here on, we might eventually forgive “the other guy” because his departure has allowed us to really appreciate just what we have in Russ.

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