OKLAHOMA CITY -- In helping Melbourne United almost defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, American point guard Casper Ware also reminded the NBA fraternity that his skills have not diminished since he was last in the league.
In the second of the National Basketball League's games against NBA opposition, Ware took the game right up to the Thunder, and their superstar point guard Russell Westbrook, finishing with an impressive 20 points (6-19 from the field, including 6-13 from three-point range), six rebounds and three assists.
"It opened some eyes around the world that the NBL is a great league," Ware told ESPN after the game. "We got some good players over there and everybody is gonna take notice now."
Entering the game, the reigning MVP Westbrook, who just signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the Thunder, showed little regard for the team from Down Under, telling reporters "I ain't expecting s-t" when asked about Sunday's game. Ware admitted that Westbrook's words provided a little extra motivation for the team.
"I love talk like that," he said. "We were always the underdog, we knew that coming in. They didn't scout us, they didn't know nothin' about us, they didn't respect us. We knew that and we made them respect us tonight."
Defensively Ware was tasked with the job of containing the explosive Westbrook, and played him close all game. Despite giving up five inches and about 25 pounds to the Oklahoma guard, Ware forced Westbrook into a couple of early turnovers, pulling the chair on him twice in the first quarter forcing him to fall to the ground.
Westbrook finished with just nine points (3-10 shooting), and was held to under 10 points for the first time in his last 144 NBA contests. During the game Ware and Westbrook could be seen jawing at each other.
"Just competitive spirit - they're competitive, I'm competitive," Ware said. "They're gonna talk, I'm gonna talk. It's a part of the game, at the end of the day, it's just basketball. That's all that was."
Ware has not played in the NBA since 2014 when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in October 2015, and waived immediately. Since then, he has played in Germany, China, France and the NBL. Still, the NBA dream is alive, and performances like that on Sunday night will only enhance his chances of returning to the big league.
Ware understood that a good showing against an NBA team featuring three All-Stars could go a long way to reminding NBA scouts that he can still play that level. He said just being able to play some quality minutes in front of NBA eyes was crucial.
"I think it was really important," he said. "I've been on teams where I don't play that much - five minutes a game - so for me to be able to go out there and play thirty-something minutes and actually get to show my talent, it meant a lot for me tonight and hopefully opened some eyes."
Recent Oklahoma City acquisition Carmelo Anthony certainly took notice of Ware's ability.
"I've seen Casper all summer in L.A. I think we all know what he can do, what he can bring to the game."
Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman was resigned to the fact that he may not be able to keep his starting point guard for the long term.
"You never worry about a player possibly getting something better," Vickerman said post-game. "That's part of what this was about, it was about those guys showing that they belong at a higher level, and obviously Casper, and a number of other guys, [showed] they can play at this level."