MILWAUKEE -- With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony at their lockers about 20 feet away, laughing and yelling across the room, Russell Westbrook was talking to reporters in front of a white board after the Oklahoma City Thunder's emphatic 110-91 win Tuesday over the Milwaukee Bucks.
George and Anthony were joking about Westbrook's outfit, with Westbrook pausing mid-answer to join in and say something back. Westbrook was asked what the Thunder did against blossoming superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was saddled with foul trouble in the first half and, despite 28 points on 14 shots, didn't have the kind of dominant game he has made routine early this season.
"We just do what we do and it was Thunder against the Bucks and the Thunder won," Westbrook said. "That's what we did."
There was a short pause, enough for Westbrook's media session to come to a close.
"That's it for me," Westbrook said, walking over to Anthony and George to carry on with the jokes.
It was a punctuating win for the Thunder, building on a 32-point smackdown of the young Bulls three nights ago in Chicago, and the kind that fosters a happy locker room. But it was clear in the 48 minutes on the floor, and in the time after: This Thunder team has preached patience, but it appears they are starting to figure a few things out.
"We all came -- myself, Melo, other guys, Ray [Felton], Pat [Patterson] -- we came from different situations, from different programs, so defensively it was going to be different to start out," George said. "But over time we were going to figure it [out], start gaining momentum, starting to figure out what we're going to be defensively."
Playing on the road against the Bucks was a good test to gauge where the Thunder stood and whether the positive momentum of the past few games would continue to build. And the Thunder set the tone early, as Westbrook sparked their best half of the season, a dominant first 24 minutes that put the Bucks on their heels.
"That first half, that's how I would love to see us play," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "I feel like when we play like that the floor's so spaced it takes advantage of all those guys."
The ball popped on the perimeter, with slashes from Westbrook leading to open looks for George and Anthony from the perimeter or Steven Adams at the rim. It was vintage aggressive and ferocious Westbrook, but he was firmly under control and dominating the game without having to score to do it. In the ultra-rare case in which his stat line didn't do him justice -- 12 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 27 minutes -- Westbrook was as good as he has been this season, and not coincidentally, so were the Thunder.
“He really set the stage right away in the beginning of the game," Donovan said. "He did an incredible job. One was with his intensity, how hard he was playing, but he was very dominant and imposing. He may not have been imposing on a stat line, but his presence to me on the court was really imposing. Even though he kicked the ball out and created some opportunities, sometimes his pass went to the next pass that led to an assist. I thought he got a lot of hockey assists tonight, where he passed the ball and it led to something else. I thought his competitive spirit and presence was there, and that was really helpful for us, especially playing on the road.”
Not every game will flow so flawlessly. There will be nights Westbrook needs to click into a different gear and take over. There will be nights he'll be a little off or a little too ball-dominant. But the Thunder are flashing their potential, and as George notes, a lot of that is on the defensive end. They executed a game plan against the Bucks, turning Antetokounmpo into a jump shooter (he was still fantastic) and turned defense into electric offense.
The offensive side is starting to catch up, and with it a balanced attack is forming. Anthony is adjusting into a spot-up, catch-and-shoot power forward. George keeps the offense churning with his pinpoint movement off the ball, but is adapting to not having it in his hands quite as much. And Westbrook is working to be a more efficient scorer and elective playmaker, orchestrating an offense rather than controlling it.
That's the formula, at least on a surface level, for the Thunder to start reaching for their ceiling. Westbrook was annoyed right away in training camp by chemistry questions. They've all preached patience, talking about needing time to figure things out. But if the beatdown of the Bucks on Tuesday was any evidence, with the vibing, loose locker room afterward, they're getting closer to doing so.