When Westbrook turned the corner, the kids extended their arms, waiting for a high-five.
"We won! We won!" one yelled out as Westbrook passed.
He sprinted by, with a supersized grin on his face, and hit every hand.
"Yeah, we did!" he yelled back.
The Thunder dispatched the young Minnesota Timberwolves 112-100 behind Westbrook's 31 points, seven rebounds and 15 assists, with the electric Thunder guard putting on another highlight show. When he re-entered the contest with eight minutes remaining in the fourth, he quickly sent Oklahoma City on a run that featured a flurry of catchy passes, slamming the door on any Minnesota comeback thoughts.
Westbrook has never been shy about swag, whether with his clothing choices or the emotions he shows on the floor, and after an alley-oop to Andre Roberson, he hopped over to the sideline and unleashed a haymaker high-five to some kid sitting courtside. The joy in the arena was palpable, and with the Thunder now 19-12 and winners of 11 of their past 15, there's an identity and chemistry building within the team that is bleeding onto the court.
"I just go out and have fun. I don't know if it's the most fun I've had, but it's definitely at the top. Just because the group of guys we have. Everybody's so unselfish, everybody is willing to do great things, everybody's willing to get better. We're young and blessed to be able to play this game, and you can't do nothing but have fun."
Westbrook is the Thunder constant, running the show every second he's on the floor. But the growth of the players around him is what will define the potential of this team. That was part of Westbrook's charge when he re-upped with an extension over the summer: He was taking on the role of mentor, trying to find a way to make his young teammates better and remain patient with the process of their development.
"Russell obviously has his fingerprints all over the team," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "He's built great relationships with these guys. I think he wants to see these guys be successful. He's encouraging those guys; he does a lot of different things. I know everybody wants to talk about the statistical part of it, but there's so much more to him and who he is as a player.
"I think [there are] a lot of people that just go to the box score and look at his numbers, and I just don't think the numbers describe who he is."
Matching the Thunder and Wolves on Christmas was interesting, the reasoning apparently obvious: a ghost-of-Christmas-past kind of thing, with the Thunder taking on what many see as a version for their former selves. The Wolves have a deliciously talented young core, all set to potentially create a long run of success in the West. The Thunder are the cautionary tale, with only Westbrook and Nick Collison remaining from the team that went to the NBA Finals in 2012. Because of the Thunder's rapid rise and the parallel between the teams, the Wolves entered the season with hype and expectation.
When the Thunder made their breakthrough in 2009-10, winning 50 games and pushing the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to six grueling postseason games, they came out of nowhere. It was in the sudden development of Westbrook and Kevin Durant as a tandem, along with the clear talent of rookie James Harden connecting the two. Former Thunder coach Scott Brooks used to laugh about that season, admitting nobody really knew what they were doing, but they had one plan of action they lived by: play hard. Practice hard. Watch film hard. Lift weights hard. Go through your pregame warm-up routine hard. Do it all with an intentional mindset to get better each and every second you're in a basketball environment. And then from there, it was about trusting in the talent naturally developing on its own.
Westbrook is the poster child for that culture, with the Thunder believing in his raw skills, while embracing what many saw as glaring flaws -- too reckless, too emotional, too unpredictable. The Thunder preached patience from the beginning, backing Westbrook at every turn. The organization rigidly defended Westbrook against his critics, believing he had every trait necessary to grow into a star. But even they acknowledge Westbrook exceeded their expectations. Because that's the Westbrook way: Find the ceiling, and try to dunk over that ceiling.
So even with the departures of Durant, Harden and Serge Ibaka leaving Westbrook as a solo act in OKC, there's been something established that both he and the Thunder can lean on. He has seized his leadership role, growing into his place at the top of a franchise. The Thunder have clung to the identity of being Russell Westbrook's team, taking on traits of his personality. He's the driving force to everything, and when he's having fun, so is everyone.