HOUSTON — Russell Westbrook, dressed in shiny black pants and a sleeveless NASCAR T-shirt, stopped by the visitors locker room on the way out of the Toyota Center on Monday night.
Westbrook chatted with former teammates such as Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, as well as some staffers he knew well from his 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He also made small talk with Chris Paul, the point guard traded along with a package of first-round picks for Westbrook this summer. Paul cracked that Westbrook had better be careful walking into his old team’s locker room, mentioning that the league office disciplined him for doing the same thing, a reference to the heated postgame confrontation between the Houston Rockets and LA Clippers during Paul’s return to Staples Center a couple of seasons ago.
Westbrook smiled and laughed throughout the visit, quite a contrast to the sneer featured on his face during his 21-point, 12-rebound, 9-assist performance in Houston’s 116-112 victory over the Thunder.
“This is how it goes: When I hoop, I have no friends,” Westbrook said. “On the court, they know not to talk to me. Steven is a real close friend of mine, but inside those lines, there’s no friends. Spalding, that’s my friend, and my teammates, but that’s it. Before the game, after the game, I’ll talk to my guys. That doesn’t mean I don’t have friends, but during the game, I don’t. If you try to talk to me, I ain’t going to say s— to you.”
After a slow start, Westbrook’s game spoke volumes Monday night.
Westbrook went scoreless in the first quarter, missing all five shots from the floor, including a layup that didn’t even hit the rim after a wild drive on the opening possession. Houston trailed by 13 at the end of the quarter, prompting Westbrook to address the Rockets after the game about making sure they play with energy from the opening tip.
“It’s up to me to be able to make sure my guys are ready to go and not just ready but competing and playing hard,” said Westbrook, who finished 9-of-16 from the floor and had a game-best plus-minus of plus-19. “Because playing hard is not an option. For me, it’s something that we’ve got to take pride in. To be able to get to that elite level, we’ve got to do that every night.”
The Rockets didn’t really pick it up until the third quarter, when they outscored the Thunder by a 39-18 margin to roar back from a 10-point deficit. Westbrook had six points, three rebounds and four assists during the quarter, when he also picked up a technical foul for taunting rookie Darius Bazley.
Westbrook’s fingerprints were also all over the final minutes. He threw down a ferocious tomahawk dunk on a fast break and swished a midrange pull-up jumper — “a cotton shot,” as he calls it — on consecutive possessions to give the Rockets a six-point lead with 3 minutes remaining. But Westbrook’s most memorable play of the night was when he chased down the rebound of James Harden’s missed 3-pointer, penetrated into the teeth of the defense and kicked it out to PJ Tucker for a wide-open corner 3 that was a dagger with 54.8 seconds remaining.
“That’s game-winning plays right there,” said Harden, who had a game-high 40 points, doing much of his damage on free throws (21-of-22). “That’s what you need. He’s a superstar, but he’s getting offensive rebounds, he’s hustling, he’s doing the dirty things to help you win. It feels good to have that on your side.”
Paul, whose Rockets tenure will be best remembered by the hamstring strain that sidelined him for Games 6 and 7 of Houston’s 2018 Western Conference finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, was given a warm reception in his return to the Toyota Center. The late-arriving crowd cheered Paul when he was introduced with the Thunder’s starters and gave him a brief standing ovation following a tribute video that played during the first timeout of the game.
“Extremely grateful. The fans here were always great to me and my family,” said Paul, who had 15 points, four assists and six turnovers in the loss. “The staff … some of the people here became like family to me, and I try to stay in touch with those who were as genuine as could be.”
Paul mentioned that he still talks to former Houston teammates Tucker and Gary Clark almost every day, coyly adding that he hopes that won’t get them in trouble. He didn’t mention Harden, with whom Paul had some friction last season, during his postgame interview session but was complimentary of Westbrook.
“Russ brings a different dynamic to them with his aggressiveness,” Paul said. “He got guys open shots. I think that’s what Russ does well. He gets guys involved.”