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Paul George and Russell Westbrook each in a better place after summer split

Russell Westbrook (right) and Paul George (left) faced off as opponents for the first time Friday night after leaving the Thunder over the summer. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Stuck in the middle of his worst shooting game of the young season, Paul George on Friday night launched a three-pointer from the left wing after the whistle had blown. The Los Angeles Clippers forward was just hoping to see the ball go through the net.

But Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook had other ideas, peeling across the court from the far corner to pluck the ball out of the air. Years ago, Kevin Garnett turned this minor disruptive act into an intimidating art form, making sure his opponents understood that nothing, not even the satisfaction of a meaningless swish, was free.

Westbrook’s message to George was plain as day: Their two years together with the Oklahoma City Thunder are officially in the past. Their history doesn’t count for anything in a present that pits the former teammates as rivals playing for Western Conference contenders with intriguing new superstar partners. Even though the season is only a month old, it’s safe to say Westbrook and George are both in a better place.

In the first head-to-head showdown since their summer split, George’s Clippers defeated Westbrook’s Rockets, 122-119, on Friday night at Staples Center. Los Angeles eked out the comeback with a 10-2 closing run in the final minute, with George hitting a key three-pointer and regularly defending Westbrook down the stretch. As fate would have it, Westbrook had a clean look at a game-winning three-pointer carom off the back rim before George secured the defensive rebound and iced the game with free throws.

“It was fun competing against him,” George said. “Russ is still my guy. He’s going to be my guy regardless of where he’s at.”

While Westbrook and George avoided any major flare-ups, tensions between the Rockets and Clippers were high because of the many ties that bind the franchises. Houston star James Harden and Los Angeles guard Patrick Beverley have battled the past two seasons. Beverley and Clippers substitutes Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were traded away by the Rockets. And Clippers Coach Doc Rivers is the father of Rockets guard Austin Rivers. In the previous meeting between the teams, Westbrook called out Beverley by implying he’s overrated defensively, and Doc Rivers was ejected for arguing a call as his son egged on the referees.

Doc Rivers got ejected, to the great delight of his son Austin: ‘I enjoyed it a lot’

Friday night produced more fireworks. Houston rapper Travis Scott, who had been cheering on the Rockets throughout the second half from a courtside seat, left shouting angrily after the loss. Westbrook’s brother, Raynard, was escorted out by security following a postgame verbal exchange with Harrell, according to Yahoo Sports. And Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni and Westbrook sounded miffed as they noted the referees missed Doc Rivers walking onto the court to call a timeout late in the fourth quarter.

None of that madness would have been possible if Westbrook and George had chosen to run things back in Oklahoma City. But George asked for a trade so he could team up with Kawhi Leonard, his fellow Southern California native. Once George was out of the picture, the Thunder reunited Westbrook with Harden, his childhood friend and former teammate with Oklahoma City, in a blockbuster deal involving the Rockets.

Together, Westbrook and George won 48 games in 2017-18 and 49 in 2018-19, but they failed to advance in the playoffs both years. Apart, Westbrook and George are on championship contenders that should easily clear 50 wins. Houston is off to an 11-5 start, with Harden on track to claim his third straight scoring title. Los Angeles is also 11-5 despite Leonard and George missing time with health issues. Without the Westbrook and George, the Thunder is 5-10.

Houston has incorporated Westbrook’s trademark frenetic style, rising from 23rd in pace last season to second. Harden still enjoys a steady diet of slowdown isolation opportunities, but D’Antoni has empowered Westbrook to seek out opportunities in transition and to push the tempo when Harden is off the court.

“I had to change my diet and my conditioning,” George said of his time in Oklahoma City. “Coming from the East to the West was a big adjustment, but then playing alongside Russ was an even bigger adjustment. He’s a blur. He gets up and down the court so fast; he creates action so fast. You have to be ready.”

The stylistic mix in Houston has worked well enough, with the Rockets ranking in the top five in offensive efficiency and Harden averaging an astonishing 38.3 points, the highest mark during the three-point era. Westbrook has settled in as a second fiddle and has had moments, including a blow-by on George for a nifty layup Friday.

Yet there are still complications. Harden has faced significant defensive attention, in part because of injury issues around him and in part because Westbrook is not a shooting threat. George left Westbrook to double-team Harden on the final play Friday. When Harden passed the ball to Westbrook, George essentially dared him to shoot. Westbrook, who is hitting just 22 percent of his three-pointers, couldn’t resist and missed.

“The whole season, [opposing teams are] running double teams at me,” Harden lamented. “I’ve never seen that in an NBA game, where you’ve got really good defenders [on the ball] and you’ve got other guys running at a person on the top of the key. You all let me know the last time you’ve seen that.”

As Harden and Westbrook work through their spacing issues, Leonard and George are getting up to speed together after dealing with knee and shoulder injuries. Rivers said neither of his stars is in condition to play extended minutes as the primary defender on an opposing team’s star, and the Clippers rotated their matchups against the Rockets. When Leonard and George have been on the court together, though, the Clippers have played imposing defense and flashed a lethal late-game lineup.

The health topic, which probably will dog the Clippers all season as they seek to “load manage” Leonard, seemingly played a central role in the Thunder’s destruction. Down the stretch last season, George, who finished third in MVP voting, was battling shoulder injuries that limited his effectiveness and ultimately required two surgeries.

“It was a problem,” Oklahoma City Coach Billy Donovan said this week. “He was dealing with both of them. He fought through it. He never complained about it. It speaks to his character and toughness. You can’t go from where he was last year and then have that drop like he did [without something affecting him].”

If George had been 100 percent, perhaps the Thunder doesn’t lose to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. If it doesn’t lose in the first round, perhaps George isn’t convinced that Leonard and the Clippers represent greener pastures. If George stays, perhaps Westbrook is still whipping Chesapeake Energy Arena into a frenzy.

Those scenarios are irrelevant now, replaced by the real possibility that the Clippers and Rockets meet in the 2020 playoffs, assuming Houston can maintain its offensive balance and Los Angeles can keep its stars on the court.

Westbrook, who cut short his postgame media availability, told Sports Illustrated last month that he was supportive of George’s decision to move on from Oklahoma City. His handling of George’s departure has been noticeably more cordial than his treatment of Kevin Durant’s 2016 decision to leave the Thunder. George, in turn, has had only nice things to say about Westbrook’s contributions to Houston’s strong start.

“I knew it was going to work [with Harden and Westbrook],” George said. “Russ is a winner. Russ wants to win. Russ will do whatever it takes to win. Russ puts his ego to the side. He allowed me to be myself and to be comfortable. I had one of the best years I’ve had while playing alongside him. Russ is a heck of a teammate.”

In other words, look for future showdowns between Westbrook and George to be hard-fought but devoid of hard feelings.

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