SALT LAKE CITY -- Sometime mid-third quarter, Russell Westbrook caught the ball on the right wing and found himself wide open from 3-point territory. He pulled the ball to his waist, ready to launch.
Then something stunning happened: He hesitated. It was only for a split second, and he let fly on the 3 anyway, but it was jarring because of how rarely it happened, if it ever even did, last season.
It was a notable moment in what was an unusual performance from Westbrook, who had only six points on 2-of-11 shooting plus seven turnovers in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 96-87 loss to the Utah Jazz. He still finished with 13 rebounds and nine assists -- because Westbrook always finds a way to impact the box score no matter what -- but as he passed up midrange looks and geared down his rim attacks, it was clear he was trying to navigate both what the Jazz were giving him and make sure that included utilizing his two new All-Star teammates.
Paul George finished with 22 on 8-of-19 shooting. Carmelo Anthony had 26 on 12-of-26 shooting. Westbrook, with only 11 attempts, had a second straight game in which not one, but two teammates took more shots than him. That happened only two times total last season (not counting a game where he played only a half).
It's clear Westbrook is adjusting and adapting to George and Anthony. Westbrook has repeated through the years that he just "reads and reacts" and that "the game will tell you what to do."
"It's the same thing [as last season]," Westbrook said. "Basketball's been the same for years. It's still the same game. Obviously different players, but the game still tells you what to do. If you need to score, you score, if not, you don't. It's very simple."
Against the Knicks on opening night, Westbrook breathlessly integrated George and Anthony, dominating the game without suffocating it, pouring in a dynamic triple-double that felt organic. Against the stingy Jazz, it didn't translate as well. Part of the struggle came from Westbrook missing shots -- he didn't finish a couple of clear opportunities at the rim -- but he also seemed to be caught in between. He has taken a noticeably different approach to the first two games this season than from the guy that set an NBA record for usage last season.
"I just play my game, man," he said. "And like I said, the game will tell you what to do regardless of who shoots. Doesn't really matter to me."
While it was ugly and disjointed Saturday against the Jazz, it's probably a good thing. For the Thunder to find their potential, George and Anthony can't be reduced to bystanders in the Russell Westbrook Experience. Westbrook is fully aware, and is making a concerted effort.
"He's trying to figure out how he can best work in the entire group," coach Billy Donovan said. "He's really, really an unselfish person and an unselfish player. Because what he's doing right now is saying, 'OK, how do I help the group? How do I make the group better? What do I need to do?' And I think he's just working through trying to figure that out.
"I think with this group he's trying to figure out what the best way he can help the team reach its potential, and that's a process he's going through," Donovan said. "He'll come out of this game, he'll learn, he'll figure out something new, and he'll be able to apply it to the next game, the next practice."
Throughout the preseason, Westbrook anticipated the reaction to the Thunder playing the inevitable bad game and cautioned patience. Westbrook is committed to empowering his teammates, and the first half illustrated that.
The Thunder struggled mightily to score -- they had 19 points with under four minutes left in the half and had a single basket over an 11-minute stretch -- but Westbrook resisted. The game was screaming for a 2016-esque takeover, with him attacking relentlessly and firing from all angles, but he continued to run the offense and look for setups.
Westbrook has the luxury of two all-world scorers beside him and wants to take advantage of that to make the game easier for everyone -- himself included. But it's a balance, and one he's going to search for the first couple weeks of the season, maintaining his dominance on a game while not overtaking it. The Thunder will be at their best when Westbrook remains their best player, but that syncs with him lifting George and Anthony.
The Jazz presented the Thunder with a perfect quiz on where they stand. They protect the paint, get back in transition, execute in the half court and gobble up isolation-heavy offenses. The Thunder want to find a better brand of basketball, one that features a three-pronged attack all gelling in rhythm. The Jazz make it hard to do that and showed the Thunder it won't be as easy as they made it look against the Knicks two nights ago.
"If we're in this locker room, this is what we want. We want these tests, we want these battles," George said. "I think tonight was a huge indicator that they're going to make us work for it. Nothing is given, we're going to get the best shot every night. Honestly, I'm happy we got this blow early. It'll help us prepare going forward. This is a journey. We're fine where we're at."