OKLAHOMA CITY — Cheer him. Stand for him. Yell his name.
If you’re inside Chesapeake Energy Arena this evening, or just watching at home, hoot and holler and dance when Houston Rocket point guard Russell Westbrook is introduced by Thunder PA man Mario Nanni.
Do that for his growing up with the team, arriving as a wide-eyed teenager, playing behind Earl Watson and exiting a family man, who in between helped take the Thunder to the Finals, to the brink of the Finals, who turned in three straight season-long triple doubles, tripling up the feat that had only been accomplished by Oscar Robertson in 1961-1962.
Do it for his loyalty, for two different times choosing to go long with Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant had left without saying goodbye.
Do it for all the times he made the seemingly impossible real, like the night, April 2 of last year, he went for 20 points, 20 rebounds and 21 assists, compiling the second 20-20-20 game in NBA history and the first since Wilt Chamberlain did it in February of 1968.
Also, cheer him, stand for him and yell his name for what he made possible by leaving, because while the king’s ransom OKC received for dealing Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers set the Thunder up very nicely in the long term, it was Westbrook’s wanting to join James Harden in Houston that made the Thunder being quite good right now possible.
For George, Oklahoma City received Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round draft picks — four of them unprotected — and the rights to two draft swaps.
For Westbrook, Oklahoma City received Chris Paul , two first-round draft picks and the rights to two draft swaps.
The Thunder also received a first-round selection for sending Jerami Grant to Denver.
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If you’re keeping score at home, that means — deep breath — OKC has its own first-round selections through 2026; first-round picks in ’22, ’24 and ’26 originally belonging to the Clippers; first-round picks in ’21 and ’23 originally belonging to the Miami Heat (via the Clippers); a first-round pick in ’20 originally belonging to Denver; first-round picks in ’24 and ’26 originally belonging to Houston; the right to swap their own pick with the Clippers in ’23 and ’25 and the right to swap their own pick with Houston in ’21 and ’25.
It’s an unthinkable and impossible haul every time I write it and yet it happened.
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As Houston arrives for today’s 8:30 p.m. tip, the Thunder are just 2 1/2 games out of sixth place in the Western Conference, playoff bound and climbing toward a higher seed.
They're 21-16 after beginning the season 6-11, making them winners of 15 of 20 and none of it would be happening had Westbrook chosen to remain in Oklahoma City or angled to be traded anywhere but Houston.
You know it’s true.
Paul has accelerated the growth of every one of his younger teammates, taken over the locker room in the best possible way and taken over fourth quarters just the same.
Tuesday, even on the second-night of a back-to-back, Paul scored 18 points after the half and 28 in all to lead the Thunder to a 111-103 overtime victory at Brooklyn.
Westbrook will enter this evening averaging 24.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7 assists and the strength of his season is hard to pinpoint.
The Rockets were 24-11 entering Wednesday night’s game at Atlanta, a game Westbrook was scheduled to have off in the name of load management.
His free-throw shooting has jumped back up, from 65.6 percent to 78.4 percent, while his 3-point shooting has tumbled further, down to 23.5 percent; not that it’s dissuaded Westbrook from attempting 3-pointers, 149 in 31 games. He’s making 42.6 percent of all his field goal attempts.
Undoubtedly, Westbrook’s reception will be warm, somewhere between a stock-taking and hearty standing ovation and a swooning and adoring standing ovation.
As Paul George told the Washington Post about his return to Oklahoma City, “Russell means way more than I did in Oklahoma and I got a standing O, so I expect non-stop cheering, non-stop appreciation for what he did.”
At least until the tip.
The two teams already met in Houston, a 116-112 Rocket victory, back when OKC was losing close games, something it hardly ever does anymore, and afterward Westbrook offered a rare and fantastic quote.
“This is how it goes, when I hoop, I have no friends. They know not to talk to me,” he said. “[Thunder center] Steven [Adams] is a real close friend of mine, but inside those lines, there’s no friends. Spalding, that’s my friend, and my teammates. That’s it.”
Westbrook was loved despite infrequent petulance. Should that surface this evening in, say, a shouting match with Paul, fans might have a decision to make. Still, were they to go with the guy playing for them now, and they probably would, they’ll not forsake Westbrook either. He’s given them too much joy.
So, if you’re in the building, or just watching at home, stand up and cheer.
Westbrook deserves it for all he made possible by coming to Oklahoma City, staying in Oklahoma City and, ultimately, leaving Oklahoma City.
Occasional poor shot selection and too many technical fouls aside, he nailed it all, even the dismount.