PHILADELPHIA -- Perhaps the biggest area of improvement for Russell Westbrook the past few years has been in composure and channeling his never-ending, on-court rage into his play -- not at external forces.
In the Oklahoma City Thunder's opening 103-97 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, Westbrook's composure came in ignoring an over-hyped fan who went double-barrel middle fingers on him after an and-1 in the first quarter. Westbrook simply flashed a fantastic look of confusion as he walked away. He was not bothered.
Even so, with a summer full of external distractions, noise and chaos pulling in every direction, Westbrook entered the Thunder's first game with myriad questions. How will he play without Kevin Durant? Can he keep it together? Will he shoot 90 times a game? Will he turn it over 15 times? Will he try to dunk on five defenders every single possession? How will he handle running the offense in a close game?
Against the Sixers, Westbrook answered every question emphatically, with a brilliant performance -- 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists (to only two turnovers) -- as he led a composed, controlled Thunder comeback on the road in front of a charged-up Philly crowd. His fourth quarter: 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting, two assists and no turnovers. He drilled a cold-blooded 3 with 4:09 left to cut the Sixers' lead to one. He nailed another jumper from the wing over Gerald Henderson with 2:44 left to get it back to one. He hit a go-ahead shot with 1:07 left, then two free throws with 35 seconds left to put OKC up for good.
"Just taking my time," Westbrook said. "That's the whole point of being patient and poised. Managing the game. That's part of my job is to be able to manage the game at a high level, and that's a huge thing for me moving forward with this team, managing the game, managing myself as well and manage other guys. That's a part of my job."
Westbrook made sure he didn't dominate the ball too much, often over-passing to try to get Victor Oladipo a shot or Enes Kanter a look or to set Kyle Singler up for a 3. Westbrook was picking his spots, flowing back and forth between scorer and playmaker. He did so darn near perfectly.
There's some concern that Westbrook might have to shoulder too much, with the 82-game schedule staring him down like two middle fingers from a Philly fan. The Thunder found a way to scrap to an opening win Wednesday, but it required a lot from Westbrook. As coach Billy Donovan said pregame, the Thunder can't rely on Westbrook to create every shot or score every point. He also holds a duty to help a young roster grow.
"I definitely take responsibility in that aspect, but at the same time, my responsibility is to kind of let them figure it out too and learn," the 27-year-old Westbrook said. "I think that's what I had to do, and I was able to figure it out. I had to fall down a few times for me to get back up, and for me to learn how to get back up, how to be able to fight through adversity. How to give it everything."
The parallels from that quote to what happened over the summer are pretty easy to draw. The Thunder are trying to turn the page on the Durant era, but there's an omnipresent shadow over everything they do. Steven Adams cracked a grin postgame when describing how he worked on his game during the offseason because "a team can change." The curiosity about how the Thunder, and Westbrook specifically, will play without Durant is something many are paying close attention to. But it's not something the Thunder are running from. They know it'll be different, and they know it won't always work out.
"We did it in a different way [last season] than this year's team has to do it," Donovan said.
The Thunder are 1-0, with an ideal start to their new reality. Westbrook held it together, and the team got just enough from other places. Adams added 16 points. Kanter had 17-and-12 in 24 minutes. Oladipo struggled in his Thunder debut, with 10 points on just 4-of-16 shooting, but he scored crucial back-to-back baskets in the fourth. It was patchwork in a lot of ways, with just enough coming from just enough players to supplement Westbrook.
The Thunder aren't shy about who they are now. They want to emulate the identity of their leader, bringing toughness and untouchable competitive spirit to every game. If they want to keep winning, that's what it's going to take.