Russell Westbrook returned from a platelet-rich plasma injection in his left knee, joining new teammates Carmelo Anthony and Paul George for the first time this preseason as the Thunder topped the Pelicans 102-91. Westbrook played only in the first quarter, scoring nine points on 3-of-5 shooting plus getting four assists, with the plan for him to ramp up his workload in the final two preseason games. But even in the limited time, Westbrook’s influence on the revamped Thunder offense was striking as he focused on playmaking, zipping passes to George, Anthony and Steven Adams.
“[Westbrook’s] got speed that you can’t scout for, that you can’t plan for,” George said. “It’s a definite luxury to have a guy with you on the floor with you. He’s going to create so much stuff for me and Carmelo. It was good, it was good to get a glimpse of that.”
Like the Thunder’s opening preseason game on Tuesday, Anthony played only in the first half, while George played midway through the third quarter. Anthony finished with nine points on 4-of-10 shooting plus six rebounds, while George poured in 25 on 7-of-14 in 27 minutes. George once again found his rhythm playing solo in the third, scoring nine points in eight minutes on 3-of-4 shooting.
“The communication is great offensively,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Carmelo has played in different systems, so he’s learning a new system, Paul’s learning a system. We’ve have a lot of guys out there doing something for the first time and not only learning something new, not that they haven’t seen this before, but playing and functioning and playing with other guys. I think they’re doing a really, really good job of continuing to work on that chemistry.”
Though it was only for a quarter, the Thunder also got a dress rehearsal for how rotations might work with their three stars. Anthony was the first one out, leaving George and Westbrook time to run a two-headed attack. After Westbrook checked out, Anthony subbed back in for George, spending time as the focal point of the second unit.
“That’s one thing Coach has sat down with myself, sat down with Russ, Carmelo, is he wants us to be ourselves,” George said. “He wants us to bring what makes us special, just do it within the confinement of this team. That’s what’s going to make the game easy for everybody.”
One sequence in the first quarter showcased the explosive potential of the trio: After Anthony hit a straightaway 3, he hauled in a defensive rebound, hitting Westbrook on an outlet, and he kicked it ahead to George for a transition 3. It was a six-point flurry in a matter of seconds.
“We joke about it, how to run a fast break with him because he’s so fast,” George said of Westbrook. “By the time you catch it your feet are all messed up trying to catch up to him. So it’s going to be an adjustment, but again, you’ve got a guy that puts that much pressure on a defense, it’s going to make the game so much easier for me. My job is the easy part, just to finish those plays for him.”
It’s only two preseason games, but with Westbrook in the mix directing the offense, the flow for the Thunder was much more fluid. Both Anthony and George talked following the game against Houston on Tuesday about adjusting and overcoming some of the offensive awkwardness of learning new teammates as they build chemistry on the floor. But on Friday, it was noticeably better with fewer your-turn-my-turn isolation sets.
“We don’t know, we’re just playing ball right now,” Anthony said of building an identity. “We’re just trying to figure it out. We want to play fast, we want to play quick, but I think with Russ you almost have to play quick. If he passes it to you and you’re open and you don’t shoot it, he’ll get mad at you. That’s something since he’s been in practice we’ve been working on. But we don’t know, we’re just playing basketball, seeing what works, trying see what doesn’t work, and when the time comes we’ll see what works and stick with that.”