NEW YORK -- For all the gawking that his outlandish off-court attire provokes, Russell Westbrook is never more captivating than when he's dressed in a simple jersey, bouncing around a basketball court that can barely contain his energy. Sunday's All-Star Game was vintage Westbrook: hard cuts, thunderous slams, a few ambitious heat checks, plenty of preening, more than a touch of his polarizing single-mindedness and an MVP trophy thanks to his game-high 41 points in the West's 163-158 victory over the East.
Madison Square Garden's celebrity row ate up Westbrook's act, and it was as if the Thunder guard was returning the favor for all of the fashion shows that have had him on the edge of his seat over the years. He stole this show, scoring 12 points in the first quarter even though he came off the bench and tallying 27 points in the first half to set an All-Star Game scoring record. He high-skipped onto the court, he galloped like a Harlem Globetrotter and he repeatedly pointed to the East's bench with three fingers after draining a three-pointer. Everyone from Bill Clinton to Bill Russell, from Nas to Phil Jackson, and from Rihanna to Willis Reed, watched Westbrook make his scene and welcome all challengers.
Although Westbrook isn't known for his perimeter shooting, he sank five three-pointers on the night, including three in a row during an electric 31-second stretch of the second quarter. Those makes led him to bomb from outrageously deep in search of a fourth; he missed badly, but his eagerness brought smiles from his fellow All-Stars and gasps from the crowd. When Westbrook hit another three-pointer in the fourth, he went to his patented "holstering" celebration and a hard thump of his chest, causing Jay Z himself to break into appreciative guffaws.
"I think Westbrook came for [the MVP] from the start," said LeBron James, who led the East with a team-high 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds. "He's unbelievable. His motor, his athleticism, his demeanor about how he approaches the game, it's all great. He showed that tonight, showcased it on a big stage."
Westbrook's 41 points fell one point short of tying Wilt Chamberlain for the All-Star Game's all-time scoring record of 42, set in 1962. The only other player to top 40 points in an All-Star Game is Michael Jordan in 1988. Really, the record was there for the taking. Westbrook shot 16 of 28 from the field, and he lamented a number of missed chippies that could have put him over the top.
"It's definitely an honor to be grouped with those two guys," Westbrook said, adding that he was aware he was approaching Chamberlain's record during the fourth quarter. "I'm happy to be close to [Chamberlain]. I know I missed like four or five lay-ups."
There's little doubt that Westbrook can live with the frustration of a few missed looks from point-blank range. He's had far bigger problems in recent years. Not too long ago, he was sidelined for the 2014 All-Star Game thanks to a seemingly endless series of knee surgeries. Earlier this season, he was stuck on the sideline with a fluky hand injury. There was even some debate entering the game about whether Westbrook and teammate Kevin Durant deserved All-Star spots, given the time they have missed and Oklahoma City's current status as a non-playoff team. Westbrook even found himself pinned to the bench behind fellow West guards Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and James Harden to start the game.
Thankfully, Warriors coach Steve Kerr relented in the second half, playing Westbrook instead of Thompson during crunch time. It was a good decision. Westbrook was standing up and bouncing throughout much of the early third quarter, looking halfway ready to check himself into the game so he could get on with his show. Once back in the game he got straight to work, flushing three consecutive dunks in 42 seconds.
The best of the bunch saw the 6-foot-3 guard jump so high that he bumped his head on the rim, and James eventually switched onto Westbrook in the fourth quarter in hopes of slowing down the onslaught. That move worked briefly, but Westbrook went on to hit a late three and the game-icing free-throws down the stretch.
"It was a spectacular show of athleticism," Curry said of Westbrook's night. "Russ got that 40 piece. It was good to see."
Westbrook's detractors will point to his wild shot selection, his forced airball while trying to score on James and his one assist against 28 shots as more evidence that his hard-driving, constant pressure style needs polish. Indeed, Westbrook narrowly missed out on a dubious achievement. In the last 20 years, no player has scored 20-plus points in an All-Star Game without registering an assist. If not for a dish to Durant for a three, Westbrook would have doubled that.
In this exhibition format and in a game that set an all-time scoring record with 321 combined points (eclipsing last year's mark of 318), everyone is best off following Jay Z's lead and reveling in Westbrook's showmanship. There are hard days ahead for the Thunder, who will spend the next two months attempting to work their way into the West's playoff picture and, if that proves successful, trying to climb out of the eight seed to avoid a first-round date with the Warriors. Save the fretting for after the extended All-Star break.
This was a night for worry-free marveling, to gape at Westbrook's vertical leap and speed rather than the ankle-length fur coat and the tight ninja Snuggie sweatsuit he wore earlier during All-Star Weekend. Westbrook headed into the Manhattan cold victorious, wearing a broad smile and clutching his best accessory yet, an All-Star MVP trophy, fully worthy of the attention he seems to crave.
GALLERY: Relive the 1998 NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden