Russell Westbrook eyes KD-like feeds with PG-13

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant would pull it off almost once a game.

The duo's favorite improv play started with Durant standing on the block under the basket and Westbrook almost near half court. If the post defender had his back to the ball, Westbrook would lock eyes with Durant and, instead of initiating the original play call, would just lob the ball over the top of the defense for kind of a half-alley-oop. Years of on-court chemistry turned into two quick, easy points.

Westbrook and Paul George have tried it a couple of times this season. It hasn't worked yet.

After being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder this offseason, George spent time watching tape of Durant and Westbrook playing together, trying to get a feel for where Westbrook could set him up best, or how he should move without the ball.

"Just trying to get out ahead of him as much as possible, I think, is key," George said. "That way, when he's making plays in full court, I'm already in position, ready to receive the ball instead of catching up, getting my feet ready, trying to decide what to do. I'm ready to shoot or attack at that point."

Westbrook, who enjoyed as great a solo campaign as any player in NBA history last season, got a glimpse of life as the only show in town and the first-round playoff exit that came with it. There's a shot at a second chance for Westbrook to rekindle the spirit of the team the Thunder once had, and in the process shed any notions that fellow stars should shy away from sharing the court with OKC's stubborn point guard.

The first month of the season has been a bumpy, stumbling, inconsistent 7-9 start, but there's still hope for something close to that magical Westbrook-Durant combination that captivated the city for eight years.

Even if it hasn't worked yet.

Headphones on, Durant stepped off a bus and walked into Chesapeake Energy Arena last February for the first time as a visitor. The headphones stayed on as he took the court for warm-ups, but around him the noise swelled, with chants and boos from screaming fans.

His name was announced in the Golden State Warriors' starting lineup but was obscured by a cloud of boos. Every time he touched the ball: boos. At the free throw line: chants of "cupcake."

The Warriors routed the Thunder and Durant was brilliant, but the night was emotional. Durant and his teammates walked off the floor wearing cupcake shirts, a returned volley toward the fans.

When Durant takes the floor Wednesday night, there will still be some boos and cupcake chants. But the visceral, vitriolic animosity between Thunder fans and Durant is largely gone. One, because they got it out of their system with that night in February. And two, because the Thunder organization has pressed the conversation forward, rather than backward.

There were a lot of examples, like general manager Sam Presti's message of "carry on" the day Durant announced his decision to leave. Or the metaphorical reminders of passing out baseballs, or pictures of MacGyver. But nothing sent the message stronger than what the front office did.

First, it was Westbrook and his August 2016 contract extension, which preceded his historic MVP season.

Then it was the stunning trade this past summer to add George, and another to add Carmelo Anthony.

Even with the Big Three look as the showcase, the Thunder's future is in Westbrook, and they hope, in George as well. The addition of Anthony was a final uppercut swing at a grand slam, and at least enough to cement Westbrook in OKC for the majority of his career.

The Thunder's front office put a plan in place in July 2016 to answer one simple question: How do they go from the middle back to the upper tier again, without bottoming out? They identified stars to pair with Westbrook, the more available the better, and George was as the top of the list.

"He's done an amazing job. He's done a great job ever since I've been here," Westbrook said of Presti. "He's finding ways to constantly keep making us a better team. ... You definitely are very, very thankful to have somebody like that in charge of making those decisions."

Westbrook and George come from similar backgrounds: Both are from Southern California, were under-recruited underdogs and NBA lottery picks who drew skepticism, and are very connected with their families. Their personalities contrast but fit, with Westbrook loud, explosive and stubborn, and George reserved, smooth and cool.

"There's something about him, to me, that's really just kind of like sturdy and stable," Presti said of George in September. "He's been in the league for a little while now, and he's seen a lot of things. I think he's got a nice confidence about him."

George likes to fish; Westbrook prefers dominoes. Over the summer, Westbrook even went fishing with George, his first time to ever try it.

"Did nothing," Westbrook said. "He didn't catch anything either."

Westbrook and Durant built something special, a dynamic relationship that featured plenty of ups and downs but produced brilliant chemistry on the floor. When it was good, it was really good.

But George isn't feeling any stress trying to live up to that standard.

"I didn't feel any pressure," George said, "of coming in and trying to be the replacement, or the second [guy] to Russell. I didn't get that feel at all."

Sixteen games into the season, Westbrook and George don't share that on-court relationship just yet, with both players still in search for the right kind of balance early in this experiment.

Westbrook is a domineering personality, and George content to go with the flow. But Westbrook has often spent time in the locker room after games emphasizing to George to be an aggressive, assertive player. Because what will make the relationship blossom, like Westbrook and Durant before, is mutual trust and confidence in the other.

What hangs over all of it is, once again, an unknown future. Westbrook's is locked down, but the ticking clock on George's free agency leaves an eggshell element to all of it. Each loss feels like an indictment, and if the Thunder continue to fumble their way along, all the fishing and bonding won't be enough. But Westbrook has committed to making it work, and work in Oklahoma City, because Durant's departure personally stung him.

And as Durant comes back to town Wednesday, the past remains and the emotions will flood back, but the striking contrast of where the Thunder were then and are now has reshaped the feel of it all. Westbrook and Durant were the great duo that once was, and while George isn't a replacement, he does represent something Russ and the Thunder worried they might not see again: hope.