Russell Westbrook's historic streak carrying Thunder into playoff push
CHICAGO — In midst of the season’s most dominant stretch by any individual player, we’ve run out of useful ways to describe Russell Westbrook.
Trying to explain Westbrook as an entity is to package his essence into neat adjectives. These descriptors tend to fall into the broader categories of either destructive or fashionable, whether you’re talking on the court or off. Astonishingly, his game has become both, though he's still more wrecking ball than magician. Effortless is one term his relentless style renders irrelevant. This particular tour de force has made one thing clear: In less than a month, Westbrook has become one of the game’s transcendent players. He’s here to stay.
To encapsulate Westbrook’s performance Thursday, here are some facts. Westbrook shot just 4 of 12 in the first half against the Bulls. It was the second night of a back-to-back. He still had 17 points at halftime. The Thunder beat the Sixers Wednesday night in overtime. He scored a career-high 49 points and registered his fourth straight triple double. By the end of this one Thursday night, a line of 43 points, eight rebounds and seven assists was staggering, yet below the impossible bar Westbrook has set for himself of late. The Thunder let the Bulls hang around and lost the game 108-105 on E’Twaun Moore’s three-pointer.
[daily_cut.NBA] “He’s an amazing player. He’s on a hot streak, but our team is playing well. That’s what he’s about,” coach Scott Brooks said after Thursday’s game. “He’s not happy he scored a bunch of points and had a bunch of rebounds and assists and we lost the game. Russell is about winning. He’s about winning only.”
His triple double streak came to an end, but Westbrook became the first player in franchise history with three straight 40-point games. None of it seemed to matter to him. He fielded questions after the game with his right hand covering his recently repaired right cheek and slightly muffling his responses. Though his answers felt standard, he wouldn’t acknowledge the notion that he might be tired in the slightest.
“It’s competitive,” Westbrook said. “My job is to come out and help us win games regardless of what it takes. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
Westbrook acknowledged he missed a wide-open Serge Ibaka late in the game (“That was a bad decision on my part”). He knew he could have played better, crazy as his numbers may be. “I think if I’m [shooting] 0-for-15, regardless of what’s going on, I’m still confident,” he said. “My job is to instill confidence in my teammates.”
From a guy who’s drawn so much scrutiny for intangible things: body language, wayward gazes, lack of pleasantries, it sounded a lot like leadership. In the past seven games, with reigning MVP and league poster child Kevin Durant out with a foot injury, it’s not just his shot chart that’s spoken for itself.
It’s fun to entertain the notion that the Thunder might be Westbrook’s team now. It’s long been the narrative that Durant comes first, and it’s not crazy to wonder if the absoluteness of that truth has been shattered. With duos of this caliber, power dynamics easily and frequently become topics of discussion. Here, that shouldn’t matter.
People still wonder if Durant and Westbrook can win a title together. The truth is that neither will play with a more gifted teammate in his career. Certainly, not one entering this particular stage of his prime, with the assumption that Durant quickly returns to top form. The Thunder have not one, but two superstars, both 26, paired and developed organically within the organization that drafted them. That pretty much never happens. Take Durant, the consummate teammate, coupled with a mature, focused Westbrook in full bloom, and the impulsive answer to the championship question starts with “not one, not two.”
Accordingly, it’s tough to think the Thunder, with renewed purpose behind Westbrook’s dynamism and a bench bolstered at the trade deadline, will take a step back when you throw Durant back into that mix. If healthy, this could be the most talented seventh or eighth playoff seed ever. Forget impending free agencies and potential new alliances, and come up with a reason this team can’t play into June.
In the meantime, here's Westbrook, alpha dog of the moment, ascendant superstar for the foreseeable future. Watch, watch closely, and come up with your own description.