OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook disappeared, somewhere in the back of the locker room, reemerging with a blue dry-erase marker in one hand. He stood in front of the ceremonial Thunder postgame news conference whiteboard, and as he answered questions -- featuring a highly sarcastic self-aware "stat-padding" response when asked about his mindset in rebounding -- he turned completely around and started writing as he talked.
If you know Westbrook, you can probably guess what he wrote -- his motto, the phrase he lives his life by both on and off the court: #whynot? He erased it, wrote it again double underlined, and kept answering questions about the Thunder's 109-104 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night.
Westbrook was sensational, finishing with 30 points on 10-of-18 shooting, eight assists and 12 rebounds, the final two stat-padded boards being in traffic over Charlotte center Cody Zeller to seal the win. But what was most notable was Westbrook's approach, which was another example of his adjustment this season in getting off the ball some, letting the offense breathe and not taking on the burden of trying to do everything at once.
With 3:30 left and the Thunder up two, the ball popped around the perimeter, to Dennis Schroder, then to Jerami Grant in the corner, then to Paul George at the top of the key and then to Westbrook on the right wing. He caught it, standing in space, and attacked the middle of the paint, drawing an and-1. It was a different kind of look, the sort thing the Thunder have been working on this season, trying to nudge Westbrook to do more by doing a little less.
But old habits die hard, and with the opportunity for a killshot 3 in front of him a couple of minutes later, Westbrook couldn't resist. He fired early in the shot clock with Oklahoma City up four and missed, then followed that up with a turnover in traffic, then another after losing it while driving for a layup. Instead of putting his head down and bulldozing his way for a stubborn shot at making things right, though, Westbrook got off the ball as Schroder organized the offense and settled in for a smooth elbow jumper coming off a high screen.
Westbrook's altered method this season has been noticeable, and those around the team have noted his buy-in and commitment to it. He's still the Thunder's best player. He's still what makes them go. But there's a different focus in how he's doing it.
He was asked about it after the game, if his approach has changed, and did what one would expected: He pointed at the whiteboard to #whynot? A slight adjustment to the question and Westbrook explained.
"I just play, bro. Play to win. Like I've always done," he said, turning around from the whiteboard. "It's about, hmm, my 11th year. It's what I do. Obviously, for me, guys and people that have been around here, been around Oklahoma City, our personnel changes every year. Personnel changes -- you've got to do different things. You've got to do more, you've got to do less. So my job is I'm a basketball player and I do everything so I can play off the ball, on the ball, whatever. Defend. Doesn't matter. As long as I'm on the floor, I can make something happen."
The most significant part of that personnel change has been Schroder and the dynamic he has added. He's Westbrook's de facto backup but mostly just in name. On Friday, because of a rash of injuries to OKC's shooting guards, Schroder started alongside Westbrook. It's standard for them to close together, and that's because of the two-headed creator look it provides.
"Everybody can attack, everybody can score, everybody can find open teammates," Schroder said. "You don't know where it's coming from. I think that's pretty dangerous."
Despite being one of the six or seven best players in the world, Westbrook has remained polarizing because of the feeling there was always another level for him to unlock -- a more cerebral, efficient approach to combine with his uncompromising competitiveness and five-tool skill set. It has been there in flashes, but, so far, this has been more holistic, and tangible. There's a balance and a symmetry to the Thunder, with Westbrook existing more within the universe rather than being it.
After Westbrook finished talking about his adjusted mindset, he turned back to the whiteboard while a reporter asked another question. He was starting another hashtag, because no matter what, whether he's playing differently or tweaking his style, it always is, and always will remain, why not.
- Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) November 24, 2018