MEMPHIS — About 90 minutes before tip-off, a smile grew wider and wider on Russell Westbrook’s face the more he thought about the difference between Wednesday night and the first time he sat inside the visitor’s locker room at FedEx Forum.
His memories of Nov. 29, 2008, are vivid. It was a Saturday night. Newly named interim coach Scott Brooks had just told him he would be starting his first career game, against the Memphis Grizzlies. And that’s when the knots started forming in the pit of his stomach. "Oh it’s a whole lot different,” Westbrook said of his nerves just before the Thunder opened its preseason schedule. "I’m so chill now. I’m so calm and cool.” Westbrook then went out and proved it, backing up his claim with a near perfect floor game in the Thunder’s 99-91 loss. His final stat line — five points, 10 assists, four rebounds — wasn’t jaw-dropping. But considering he turned the ball over only twice, took just four shot attempts and could have had 15 assists had his teammates knocked down a few more shots, Wednesday’s opener was about as good as it gets. Westbrook deliberately looked for his teammates throughout the game rather than calling his own number. And his improved decision-making was on display, as he rarely got himself into jams and frequently saw plays developing ahead of time. One of Westbrook’s shot attempts was out of necessity as the shot clock neared zero, and one of his turnovers was the result of an illegal screen as he attempted to free up a teammate. "He’s gotten way better from what I saw last year,” said teammate Shaun Livingston, who added it took him until his third season to evolve into an exceptional playmaker. "He’s understanding the flow of the game.