By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY – The start of the 2016-17 season for Russell Westbrook almost couldn’t have gone any better. Not only did the Oklahoma City point guard lead his team to a comeback 103-97 victory over Philadelphia Wednesday on the road, but his newest rival out in Oakland lost his season opener.
Just as important, Westbrook posted 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists and was one assist shy of a triple double.
As he enters his ninth year, Westbrook has continued to transform from an aggressive scoring guard to an all-around point guard who can take over games in a variety of ways.
“It’s just taking my time, being patient, poised and managing the game,” Westbrook said. “It’s part of my job, to be able to manage the game at a high level and that’s a huge thing for me moving forward with this team.”
But it was the defense the Thunder displayed in final minutes against the Sixers that really stood out. They had to come up with three consecutive stops, including a blocked shot by guard Andre Roberson and guard Victor Oladipo taking a charge to secure the win.
“I think that was the key,” Thunder forward Enes Kanter said. “When you try to finish the game, when you try to finish the fourth quarter, I think the most important thing is the defense. Everybody was focused, everybody did a good job.”
Opening night was not as kind for the Phoenix Suns. They were at home Wednesday taking on fellow Pacific Division rival Sacramento and fell 113-94.
The Suns got off to start shooting the ball trailed 57-38 at half. Using their reserves, however, Phoenix was able to go on a run in the third quarter and cut the lead to 10. But that would be as close as they would get.
Eric Bledsoe is back on the court for the first time since a season ending knee injury in December. He scored 16 points in his return. Guard Devin Booker led the team with 18.
However, having the second unit play as well as it did was a positive note Phoenix coach Earl Watson can carry into the Suns game with the Thunder.
“The momentum changed everything,” Watson told The Arizona Republic. “Our second unit, we just played young guys, let them play aggressive, let them have fun, be creative. They played with a lot of passion. It was fun to watch.”
It was also a way for Watson to send a message to his veterans who under-performed and played with lackluster effort at the start.
“The way I addressed the team was, you can’t use, ‘We’re young,’” Watson told Arizonasports.com. “Our young guys got us in the game. Our veterans have to come and have to play with the same passion.”
One of Phoenix’s most explosive players is the Booker, who lit up the Thunder a couple of times last year. His matchup in the backcourt with Westbrook should be the highlight of the night.
Even though the Suns are coming off a contest in which their offense inconsistent, the Thunder are wary of the explosive squad.
“They are a very, very fast team, an explosive team,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of the Suns. “Their backcourt with Booker and Brevin Knight has speed. Along with Bledsoe, they can shoot the ball. (Tyson) Chandler is one of the great rollers to the rim and a great post defender. They have the ability to play small. They are a different team than Philadelphia, but it will be a challenge.”
Thunder and Suns tip-off Friday at 7 p.m. at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.