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MILWAUKEE — The dominance came in quick, powerful flashes, moments where the Oklahoma City Thunder flat-out overwhelmed the young and talented Milwaukee Bucks.
Instances where they established that when they’re right, the Thunder can take an elevator to a level higher than the opponent and catch the attention of the NBA’s best.
Yes, that means you, Golden State Warriors.
Even though Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are the new shiny additions for the Thunder and presumably a big reason why Russell Westbrook signed a long-term extension to stay with the franchise, matters still twist and bend to Westbrook’s will.
His fingerprints were all over the Thunder’s 110-91 beatdown of the Bucks Tuesday night, and he didn’t have to put together a devastating statistical performance to prove his point.
It was a ho-hum 12-point, 10-rebound, nine-badist showing in 27 minutes, where he ceded shots and attention to Anthony (17 points) and George (20 points).
His mere presence, though, can leave the best of the long-limbed staggering, looking around for aid.
“He’s the [Mike] Tyson of basketball,” Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said prior to the game. “When the jump ball [happens], he is coming as Tyson got off the stool. He is coming for you.”
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Before Tyson became the comedic and almost endearing figure he’s viewed as today, he was the most feared man in sports, knocking out opponents before fans had a chance to get comfortable in their seats. He was often in full lather before the bell rung, an apt comparison considering Kidd, a basketball savant if ever there was one, chose not to put Westbrook in a basketball box that didn’t fit.
“Whenever he’s on the floor, he plays at one speed, fast and hard,” Kidd said, in all admiration. “He’s a little different in that case.”
Westbrook has always been a knockout artist, going straight for headshots that take the air from the arena and spirit from his opponent. But fights—and NBA championships—aren’t always won that way.
It takes body shots, endurance, smarts and toughness.
It takes a pecking order.
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Anthony was amused when hearing of Kidd’s Westbrook-Tyson comparison, likening he and George to 12-round fighters like Floyd Mayweather or the late Muhammad Ali.
“We bob and weave, Ali-style,” Anthony told B/R while walking through the bowels of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. “We see how the game goes, then we go.”
Anthony is leading the Thunder in shots per game at 18.1 a night, and his scoring average of 22.9 points per game ranks right with where he was the last few years in New York, albeit without the drama that came with being a Knick. George is taking 16.9 shots and Westbrook 15.4 (his fewest since 2009-10), while Steven Adams’ no-nonsense play caused Kidd to say about his team, “When you play grown-ups, you gotta be ready, and we weren’t ready to play tonight.”
Adams and George anchor a long and active defense, with Adams plugging the holes on a spread pick-and-roll that nearly looks unstoppable with Westbrook at full bore.
Anthony is holding the ball less, and his plus-minus of plus-8.6 through seven games is the best of his career by far. His previous best marks came in 2012-13 and 2008-09 at plus-4.6, the only two instances where Anthony advanced past the first round of the playoffs in his 14-year career.
What those years have in common were point guards whom Anthony could trust. In the 2008-09 season, it was Chauncey Billups in Denver. In 2012-13, it was a sage and veteran Kidd in New York, on the tail end of Kidd’s career.
“I think there’s no pressure,” Kidd told B/R. “He has someone he trusts who’ll do the right thing at the right time. It just makes his job easier.”
“He’s gonna be him,” he continued. “You make sure he’s in the right spots, and he will be. For Chauncey or myself or Russ, how can I make the game easier for you? Less pounding, [fewer] hits. Make the game easy and fun when you can get some wide-open threes, and then he can go. That’s the big thing.”
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Playing within a somewhat structured team construct allows for Anthony improvisation, a moment where “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo swatted Anthony’s patented spin and layup off the glbad, only for Anthony to recover and launch a 20-footer that easily found its way to the bottom of the net.
Anthony’s version of “bob and weave” was a straight uppercut to an already wobbly Bucks team, one he doesn’t have to unleash too often.
“(Trust) is a major key for me—[Kidd] is 100 percent correct,” Anthony said to B/R. “My best years have come with guys who I can trust at that position. Guys who know that position. Guys who I can play off of and rely on a night-to-night basis. I had Andre Miller, then Chauncey, Jason Kidd. Those guys really showed me the ropes.”
“As a result,” Anthony continued, “I had my best years. Now, having somebody like Russ who I know I can trust, I know I can put my faith in. I can go to war with him on a night-to-night basis. We both have the same code in mind—that’s to win—and that’s what makes it good for me.”
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Anthony concedes Westbrook’s style is vastly different than those of Billups or Kidd. Billups played deliberately, often picking his poison with long three-pointers to take pressure off Anthony. Kidd was the ultimate playmaker, controlling the pace to his whim and acquiescing to the styles of his teammates.
“Oh yeah,” Anthony said to B/R about Westbrook being different. “It’s just somebody, I don’t have to have the ball in my hands at all times. He knows the game. He knows my game. I trust him to make plays.”
With Westbrook, there’s one speed, but he’s finding a way to harness it. He’s putting the fear in his opponents without drowning out his teammates in this new setup.
For all of the individual accomplishments of OKC’s new Big Three, trust isn’t instantaneous. Things will be established as the season progresses, especially as teams start finding themselves and this trend of funky results settles itself out. Then, we’ll find out whether Anthony is as committed to ball movement and the defensive end, and if he or George can be comfortable with being a third option.
Or if they can pull Westbrook back when the Tyson in him starts throwing wild punches that don’t hit their mark.
“Yeah, I think you have that,” Kidd said to B/R about a pecking order. “It helps to know that your guys, your [No.] 4 or 5, they know where they are. When you have that, it flows. When you’re young, it’s hard to have that because everybody thinks they’re some other number. But when you have that [pecking order], you can go.”
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Anthony naturally disputed that with a casual “Hell no. We don’t do that,” and he wouldn’t make the easy comparison to the Miami trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh which went to four straight NBA Finals.
It was Bosh who had to make the biggest sacrifice, but Anthony doesn’t see it that way.
“Everybody. It’s a fair share for everybody here,” Anthony said. “We know how to play the game. Whoever gets it, gets it. You make a play for yourself, you make a play for somebody else. It’s not, oh, he’s first, he’s second.”
But who’s third? Could it be Anthony? If so, their third option is more dependable than many other teams’ second option—and Anthony can do it without the defense leveraging itself to his side all the time.
“Can you handle being No. 2, can you be No. 3?” Kidd told B/R. “And it’s all right. If you’re about winning, you’re gonna be whatever those numbers are, you’re gonna accept it.”
And if the Thunder do it right, they’ll be doing more than delivering first-round knockouts. They’ll be in the 12th round, in Oakland, against a team with just as much knockout power and just as much endurance.