OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder ended Thursday night with a familiar feeling. And it wasn’t from of the 105-84 victory over the New York Knicks in a game they mostly controlled throughout. It was from the postgame interview.
Last year’s team was Russell Westbrook’s. He ran that principle all the way to an MVP trophy. This year, it may still be his, but it’s his to share. It’s why at the conclusion of the season opener, all three of Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony headed to TNT’s Kristen Ledlow for the typical, postgame interview.
It was a throwback to the early days, when the Thunder showed off not just Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant but fellow youngsters James Harden and Serge Ibaka, too.
“It felt good to kind of share that moment with other guys, share that moment with Russ and PG,” Anthony said. “Hopefully, it’s a lot of that type of interviews with all three of us.”
Thursday was billed most as Anthony’s, second-most as George’s.
Anthony was the former New York Knick facing his old team for the first time while simultaneously playing his initial game as a member of the Thunder. It was George’s much anticipated first game in OKC, too. Yet, Westbrook was somehow the one who kept everything in line on his way to, of course, triple-double No. 1 of 2017-18.
“He has played differently all three years [I’ve coached him]…He’s tried to always figure out what’s best for the group and how does he get the group involved?” coach Billy Donovan said. “This year is no different.”
It was each of their nights in different moments.
It was Anthony’s when he rattled in a 3-pointer for the game’s first basket. He finished with 22 points on 20 shots.
“I think because it was opening night, everybody was a little jacked up and amped up tonight…I always think it’s a little bit more emotional when you have to go back to the place that you played,” Donovan said. “And I think going back to New York for him will probably be a little bit more.”
It was George’s when he splashed a bevy of triples or when he picked up a loose ball with mere seconds remaining in the first half and went coast-to-coast, slamming in a buzzer-beating dunk to give Chesapeake Energy Arena its loudest moment of the evening, measuring at 108.8 decibels.
He finished with a team-leading 28 points, including six made 3s.
Yet, Westbrook controlled the flow in a way many may not have expected.
George and Anthony each attempted 20-plus shots. Westbrook dropped 21 points on 7 of 12 shooting. He added on 16 assists and 10 boards.
He pulled the Thunder, which started off with a flurry of 3-pointers, away from an early offense that was lacking.
Nineteen of the team’s first 30 field-goal attempts were from range. It finished with 38 3-point attempts on 90 shots. Specifically, it was Anthony and George chucking them off dishes or finding opportunities in one-on-one situations. The offense appeared exactly as everyone within the Thunder had advertised it: talented but still building an identity.
All the while, Westbrook, a man coming off a season that was record breaking not just for his triple doubles but also for its ball dominance, made an obvious effort to give up the rock early in possessions. He become even more comfortable by the third quarter.
“I thought we found more of a rhythm offensively in the second half,” Donovan said.
The Knicks’ deficit opened up once the lobs did.
Westbrook threw three of them in the middle of the third quarter, one to center Steven Adams, one to wing Andre Roberson and a final one to Adams, who dominated defensively all game. It ballooned OKC’s lead to 19. It was the loudest stretch in which players not inside the Thunder’s conventional big three received consistent scoring opportunities.
Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 55 of OKC’s 90 shot attempts. It’s a model that will adjust, at the very least, in the way it looks, possibly phasing out some of the early-clock isolation moments.
But for now, it’s one Westbrook controls with two equals alongside him.
"You guys are used to it. I'm used to watching it. I'm used to going up against it," Anthony said. "To be on the other side of that and to be on the same team with him and kind of reap those benefits of what he can bring to the game, I'm excited about what we started out tonight."
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as a host of the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.