- There's nothing in the NBA quite like watching Russell Westbrook in person. With the Thunder star in town, The Crossover's Rohan Nadkarni took in the mesmerizing performance.
I finally took in the Russell Westbrook Religious Experience at Barclays Center on Tuesday night, and watching my 2017 MVP choice (for now) in person did not disappoint. Trudging through a fake blizzard was a small price to pay to watch one of the most electrifying guards of all time, and I think most people who’ve seen Russ at the height of his powers this year probably share this takeaway: Watching Russ in person is a night you won't soon forget.
First off, while Russ himself may not be chasing triple doubles, that’s practically all the crowd at Barclays cared about Tuesday night. The Nets’ woes were certainly a factor in the lack of interest in the actual game, which was actually quite close for three-and-a-half quarters. But it was the Russ show from the opening tip, and people cheered Westbrook assists as if they were halfcourt buzzer beaters.
That’s half the fun in watching a transcendent superstar like Westbrook in what will likely stand as his best season ever. It’s taking in the game with a group of thousands who are awed at his every move. Every time Russ found a flanker in transition, a roll man off a pick, or a cutter in a halfcourt set, the crowd murmured with excitement, busting out into full-on applause when the shot connected. And if someone missed, robbing Russ of his assist? You could count on that player hearing boos all the way down the court.
Watching Russ is like cheering for the horror movie villain to brutally maim an annoying teen. People start bubbling with a giddy excitement as soon as Westbrook has the ball on the opposite end of the court. Is he going to knife down the lane and dunk on three people? Will he go into hyperspeed, pull up from the elbow and swish a J? Or will he draw in the defense before corkscrewing a pass at the last possible second?
The mental gymnastics are almost as impressive as Russ’s overwhelming athleticism. In person, you definitely better appreciate the nuances of Westbrook’s physicality. He is lightning quick, and defenders often have a pained look on their face because of his relentless style. Russ is an absolute load on the block, and he will send another grown man flying backward with a bump to the chest if that defender isn’t in perfect position. But watching Russ control the game is its own treat.
Whether it’s in transition or in the halfcourt, it feels as if Westbrook is in his own world. There are nine basketball players on the court, and then there’s Russ, the conductor. He moves around pieces at his own will, and he bends and breaks the game until he gets what he wants. In the first quarter against Brooklyn, Russ decided he wanted to rack up assists, and there was simply nothing the Nets defense could do to stop him. His athleticism is such a threat that taking your eyes off Russ for one second could be the reason you end up on a poster.
A handful of NBA players are capable of dominating a game and forcing the defense to acquiesce to their every whim. But none of them have the ball in their hands as often as Westbrook, who makes defenders nervous simply by surveying the court from the top of the key.
Of course, a great deal of Russ’s dominance Tuesday night had to do with the Nets, who aren’t exactly equipped to shut down one of the top five players in the game. But no NBA player should be putting up a 25-12-19 stat line with the ease that Westbrook did. As much as Russ trails sweat all over the floor, pounds the air out of the ball and crashes at the rim, there’s still a moment of, he did what?! when you look at the box score.
There were two moments that ultimately stuck out to me from watching Russ in person. One occurred in the fourth quarter, when Taj Gibson realized Westbrook was sitting on nine rebounds, so he hopped aimlessly at a loose ball and let Russ complete his triple double. The Brooklyn crowd went nuts, erupting into an applause and giving him a standing ovation for the accomplishment (his 33rd triple double of the season). How many players get that kind of reception on the road?
The best moment, however, happened the first time Russ scooped up the ball in the paint, and began his mad dash toward the hoop on the other end of the floor. Everyone in the arena was transfixed on a single player. This is what they had paid to see. In that moment, it felt like anything was possible.