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Russell Westbrook is the Catalyst Behind Oklahoma City’s Resurgence

After using the first part of the season to redefine his role, MVP Russell Westbrook has returned, and the Thunder have won six straight.

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Don’t look now, but the Oklahoma City Thunder are figuring out their new dynamic.

Winners of six straight games and eight of their last 10, the Thunder are finally beginning to look like the team many thought they would be when they brought in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to pair up with reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook.

While all three of Oklahoma City’s star players have been upping the ante over the team’s latest run of dominance, the real difference maker has been the guy who’s been there all along for the Thunder.

After winning the MVP last season, Westbrook started off this campaign in a weird place on the court. Between integrating two new shot-heavy teammates that didn’t seem to fit his style of play and wanting to still be “the guy” for a franchise he’s stuck beside since day one, Westbrook’s on-court production failed to reach his most valuable player heights.

Prior to the Thunder’s six-game winning streak, Westbrook was averaging an uncharacteristic 22.8 points per game. His assists (9.9) and rebounds (9.6) resembled the dominant Westbrook basketball fans have grown accustomed to, but the takeover “Brodie” persona was nowhere to be found it seemed.

In order for the Thunder to become a true threat out west, against the likes of Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, and the rest of the stalwarts, Westbrook was always going to be the guy. Of course, when levels of talent like George and Anthony enter the fold, adjustments need to be made. Much can be said about Westbrook’s style of play, which at times can be overwhelmingly inefficient, and potentially even scared away the best teammate he’ll ever have in Kevin Durant. But Westbrook is among the league’s best because he is always up for the challenge. There won’t ever be a moment where Westbrook will look to the guy next to him and say, “I don’t want the pressure of the last shot.”

When the season started, and that version of Westbrook was only around for moments at a time, instead of always, the Thunder began to flounder. Shot selection became poor from all three of the team’s headline players because Westbrook wasn’t directing traffic on the court as he normally would have been. Instead, he was quick to get others the ball in hopes of appeasing them or getting their game going. An admirable decision, but one that didn’t help the team rack up wins.

During this most recent stint of winning games, where the Thunder are beginning to look dangerous, MVP Westbrook has returned. In his last six games, Westbrook is averaging 30 points, 10.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game. He is shooting 56 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc, and turning the ball over just 3.5 times per game. Westbrook is directing the offense the way he did last season in Oklahoma City, but this time around he has prime time scorers beside him.

One of them, Anthony, knows this is the best recipe for success with his new team.

“I think the fact that Russ is just playing — not trying to defer to anybody, to any one of us — just playing his game and letting us play off him … I think he’s much more effective by doing that rather than deferring to myself or Paul,” Anthony told ESPN. “We know what we bring to the game. We understand it. We accept it. And by that, he’s able to just play his game, relax and do what he does best. We need that. We need that Russ out there. Not the one who defers to us. Let us figure it out.”

With the halfway mark of the season fast approaching, the Thunder are hitting their stride at just the right time. Currently, they’re 20-15, and in fifth place in the Western Conference. Should they keep up their winning ways, the chances of the team dealing George or Anthony at the trade deadline, as some had floated, would be a long shot.

All of this, of course, falls back on Westbrook. It always has. He is the man with the paycheck, the personality, and the talent that Oklahoma City has chosen to lead their team time after time. In order for them to prove this isn’t just a fluke winning streak, and the experiment of George and Anthony was worth it, Westbrook needs to be himself, and let his teammates fall in line after him.

The Thunder can be a dangerous team with Westbrook at the helm and his teammates performing their duties. In time, we shall see if this level of heightened success is sustainable. But as long as Westbrook is the catalyst, in the words of his personal foundation’s slogan, “Why Not?”

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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