It has become something of an awkward scenario, a tangible example of the integration and on-court chemical bonding process the Thunder’s star trio is dealing with. The opposing team is called for a technical foul, and someone has to shoot the free throw.
The technical foul shot is roster hierarchy in action, typically going to the alpha on the floor (if, of course, they’re a good free throw shooter). Russell Westbrook took all of them last season for the Thunder; Carmelo Anthony and Paul George are accustomed to doing it with their former teams.
But when all three are on the floor together and a defender camps in the lane for three seconds or an opposing coach runs his mouth a little too much, they have to decide: Who’s taking this?
“I had a conversation with Russell about this and kind of left it up to him,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
Some of the free throw carousel was also because Westbrook started the season uncharacteristically struggling with his foul shooting — caused by a change in delay-of-game rules that messed with his routine, he said — but he has straightened out over the past three games, hitting 24-of-26.
Westbrook, though, still occasionally cedes the duty. He said it’s just something that depends on how the game is going, and he’ll give a nod to Anthony or George to take it, or he’ll just step up on his own. Because to him, it’s his responsibility, and fits into the overreaching narrative that’s hovering over the Thunder as they navigate this new roster: It’s up to him to make this work.
“That’s a part of my job to make sure those guys are [comfortable],” Westbrook said. “Those guys are great players and my job is to make sure they’re comfortable, and in their spots, and comfortable with the things that best benefits their game.”
When the Thunder have sputtered, there was thought Westbrook would revert to his 2016-17 version, piling up 40-point triple-doubles, and figure out the stuff with George and Anthony later, but not at the expense of winning. He has resisted the urge, at least to this point, to shuck well-intentioned plans and go scorched earth.
“No, that was last year,” Westbrook said. “This is a new year, new team.”
It’s a fine balance to strike for the reigning MVP, embracing his own stardom and ability to dominate a game, while also helping George and Anthony flourish. It’s what has led to a lot of the offensive uneasiness early in the season, especially in close games, as the Thunder try to simultaneously reduce my-turn, your-turn possessions, while also utilizing all the talent and skill those three have, particularly in isolation.
“We just communicate, man. We’re not worried about it,” Westbrook said. “Whoever has it going, that’s where the ball’s going. We play off each other and figure it out. The game will tell you what to do.”
All of it has been good in theory, and sounds good between two quotation marks, but the play on the floor has been uneven. The trio of stars has produced an offensive rating of 107.8, steadily improving throughout the first month. The Thunder have won three straight — all at home, all against sub-.500 teams. They believe they’re improving, but as they find their identity, relinquishing the notion of balance might be their MacGuffin. That realization may have come after the low-point of the season to date, a closed door locker room meeting in Denver after a fourth straight loss. The message, coming primarily from Westbrook: Paul George, go be the star you are.
“After our loss in Denver, we just had a sit-down with Russ,” George said. “I asked Russ what he needs from me, what he wants me to do better. And then I came out the [next] two nights and implemented what he asked of me, and that was just to be myself, be aggressive, and stay in attack mode.”
George scored 42 and 37 in the next two games. (And took all the technical foul free throws, too.) The Thunder’s offense looked more diverse and explosive than it had all season. Westbrook settled further into a role he was quite comfortable in for the majority of his career, playing off and feeding a high-efficiency scoring wing.
Anthony returned from missing a game with a sore back, and the Thunder shot 36 percent as George scored 13 on 4-of-15 shooting. Anthony is the wrinkle that is still being worked in. He has a distinct way of playing, and complicates the more natural Westbrook-George pairing. But he also could be the factor in elevating the Thunder to where they want to be. It was a calculated risk to add Anthony, but one made with a vision of competing with the top dogs of the NBA.
The Thunder are coming up on a month together. It seems like it’s getting better, but that could be a product of the opponents and less about working it all out. Westbrook has tried to make a clear adjustment, using far fewer possessions and pulling back on calling his own number. Early on the apparent thought was an effort at nightly balance, but the evolution over the past couple weeks has been to ride the star that has it going. And that can fluctuate within the game, too.
“I think up to this point, there’s no more guessing where guys are gonna be, where I’m gonna get the ball, where it’s great scoring opportunities,” George said. “I think in the beginning of the season, everything is so new, not showing when to attack and what spacing was, how to operate in the offense. But to this point, everything has come together now. I understand what my role is and where I can be aggressive and where I can be helpful igniting our offense. It’s just, everything is starting to come together.”
All of those words look great. And coming off a few wins, George probably felt great saying them. But as the Thunder head to San Antonio on Friday, then New Orleans on Monday, and then back to Oklahoma City for a showdown on Wednesday against the team they’ve built a roster to try to beat (the Warriors), those words are going to face a serious test.
How far have they come in a month? They’re about to find out.