'I felt like I was home': Russell Westbrook's return to OKC a perfect night for Thunder
The cheers began when the video started. That meant we couldn’t easily hear some of the audio, but who cares? Russell Westbrook rarely was about words; he always was about action.
Image after image stoked memory after memory. Westbrook dunks. Westbrook roars. Westbrook fashion. Westbrook community involvement. Westbrook shooting eye darts at the media.
The Chesapeake crowd, 18,203 strong, turned up the volume as the video neared its end and public address announcer Mario Nanni began to introduce the Houston Rockets, starting with a certain number 0.
John Sebastian’s welcome back of Mister Kotter was no match for the greeting that awaited Oklahoma’s greatest hero. The crowd roared for 30 seconds and would have gone for 30 minutes had Nanni not doused the flame with the introduction of James Harden.
The cavalcade of cheers turned to boos and a perfect Thursday night ensued. Westbrook played great. The Thunder won big.
The final was 113-92. Everyone was reminded that Westbrook will forever be loved — although a Thunder-Rockets playoff series could test the resolve of even the most ardent Russ fan — and this Thunder squad is winning fans of its own.
“I felt like I was home,” Westbrook said. “Plain and simple. I didn’t get this feeling like it was weird. It’s just I felt like I was playing, back at Chesapeake. Like a normal game for me, honestly. Not a normal night, but me personally, once I got on the floor, that’s how I feel.”
The night most definitely was not normal.
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Westbrook nailed a dribble-up 3-pointer halfway through the first quarter. Chris Paul, no small character in this Shakespearean drama, immediately followed with his own dribble-up 3-pointer, and the crowd erupted at the one-upmanship.
Westbrook went to the foul line early in the second quarter. When he missed, the crowd cheered.
When Westbrook committed two offensive fouls in a 78-second span of the fourth quarter, with the Thunder up big, the crowd was thrilled.
It was nothing personal. This is business.
“Obviously, we got smacked,” Harden said. “But it was a dope environment. Oklahoma City, as usual, showed mad love to Russell and everything he’s done for those 11 years he was here. Obviously, an unbelievable fan base, and it was just a beautiful thing to see.”
Made more beautiful by the Thunder, stumbled upon quite a good squad of its own; Westbrook’s departure via trade last July sent Oklahoma into a melancholy state but didn’t send the Thunder into the depths of NBA mediocrity.
The Thunder has won 11 of 13 games, has a 22-16 record and is only a game-and-a-half out of sixth place in the Western Conference. Easier to be charitable when the franchise isn’t in tatters.
Give Westbrook credit. Before the game, Houston coach Mike Dantoni wondered how his new superstar would handle the emotions of the night.
“He’s gotta be bubbling inside,” Dantoni said. “He might just go off and explode one way or the other. It could be fun. For me, I just hope he enjoys it. It’s an important moment for him, what he did here. I think it’ll be fun. Glad to be a part of it.”
Westbrook did go off: 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting and five assists, though he had seven turnovers. Westbrook always has turnovers.
But when Westbrook exited with 7:18 left in the game, Dantoni waving the white flag, Westbrook had 34 of Houston’s 75 points.
Westbrook did all the right things. His wardrobe entering the arena included a shirt that said “Thank You Oklahoma.” His game shoes were a special design that included his many OKC numbers. When introduced during the wild ovation, Westbrook acknowledged the crowd and patted his heart.
Then Westbrook played his butt off.
On a night when every Thunder mainstay was on, and Harden was wildly off, the Thunder could afford Westbrook such a luxury.
Danilo Gallinari (23 points), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (20), Chris Paul (18), Dennis Schroder (18) and Steven Adams (15) each shot better than 50 percent from the field.
Meanwhile, Terrance Ferguson hounded Harden into a 5-of-17 shooting night, and this game was over by the end of the third quarter.
When it was over officially, Westbrook didn’t make his customary quick exit. He hustled to the far baseline, gave hugs to Thunder chairman Clay Bennett and the widow of Thunder partner Aubrey McClendon.
“Mr. Bennett done a lot of for me and my family,” Westbrook said. “He has done things that have gone unnoticed. Always very, very supportive of anything I wanted to do for the city while I was here in Oklahoma, the fans here, the people, they never did me no wrong. I have no bad blood, nothing here from the fans, nobody in the organization, because they gave me all they had.”
After those hugs, Westbrook walked off the court to more roars. A perfect end to a perfect night.