OKLAHOMA CITY — It appeared that Russell Westbrook’s outrageous workland and nonsensical statistical madness in the first quarter of the season was catching up. As the Oklahoma City Thunder let a 16-point lead slip away, which turned into a seven-point deficit with four minutes remaining against the Washington Wizards, Westbrook was clanging his way to an eyebrow-raising shooting night. You could feel the Monday Morning Point Guards and hot-takers revving their engines.
5-of-24. 6-of-26. 7-of-28. Missed layups. Missed jumpers. Missed everything.
He already had his triple-double. It was the win that was in doubt, and Westbrook wasn’t going to let that go without resistance. So naturally, despite his shooting struggles, Westbrook splashed a 3 with 8.5 seconds remaining to force overtime. And from there, he outscored the Wizards himself, 14-10, as the Thunder won their fourth straight, 126-115.
“When he goes through difficulties, he focuses more,” coach Billy Donovan said, “and I think that’s really unique.”
Westbrook scored 17 points in the final 5:08, hitting five of his last eight shots. The final triple-double tally: 35 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. It was his fourth straight, the 46th of his career, and for the first time since Oscar Robertson, a player will be averaging a triple-double in the month of December.
The descriptors are becoming platitudes, as Westbrook has somehow normalized the triple-double. He has taken what is a career highlight for many and turned it into an expectation. Or better, an average. This is a run of four consecutive triple-doubles for Westbrook, which somehow only ties the longest such streak of his career. He’s one assist and two rebounds away from the streak being eight games. He’s halfway to the number he posted for last season — 18 — which was the most in a campaign since Magic Johnson in 1981-82.
“Uhhh, yeah,” teammate Victor Oladipo said when asked if he’s ever amazed by Westbrook. “I’ll be out there and some of the things he does are unreal, bro.”
And yet, there were plenty who couldn’t ignore the volume of shots or arctic-cold shooting percentages. There’s already a small but annoying chorus labeling Westbrook’s triple-doubles as merely stat-padding; even with the jaw-dropping numbers, Westbrook still can’t shake the minority ready to chirp about any inefficiency. What those box-score hawks are missing, though, is the impact Westbrook is having on a nightly basis. The Thunder need every drop they’re getting from their star, and as much as he can, he’s providing it.
On Wednesday, while the shots clanked, Westbrook didn’t stop. He keeps coming, shucking the worry of what the final line might look like. Sure, the Thunder would’ve won more comfortably had Westbrook shot the ball better. But he’s carrying an extreme burden, with his performance tied to the Thunder’s in most every way. He has never been an overly efficient scorer, and with his usage rocketing into uncharted territory, it’s only natural that he’ll be off some nights. What’s never off, though, is his will to win.
“For me, every play matters,” Westbrook said. “You have to see what’s going on in the game, and you can always impact the game in different ways. That’s the type of player I am, trying to find ways to impact the game, whatever is going on.”
What’s lost on the critics, the ones who zero in on his shot attempts, his misses or his turnovers, is that those numbers come organically because Westbrook simply doesn’t let up. He could pay mind to what the numbers look like and gear down for something like 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting. But if he does that, the Thunder don’t have a chance to win. Even if he misses the game-tying 3, Westbrook’s willing to accept that.
Westbrook joked after the game about needing to buy his teammates a steak dinner for the way they picked him up, and it’s true: Oladipo was influential in the win, scoring 25 on 10-of-16 shooting, including some massive 3s. The Thunder’s bench provided a nice first-half spark. And defensively, there was just enough. The Thunder picked up stops in the final three minutes to engineer the comeback.
Westbrook wanted to win, as he always does, but this one carried a little extra motivation with former coach Scott Brooks making his return to Oklahoma City, now as coach of the Wizards. Westbrook and Brooks had, and still have, a great relationship, and Westbrook made an unusual pregame detour from his normal routine to hug Brooks and share a word with him.
“We have a lot of respect for each other. He has done a lot for myself and my family, and he means a lot to me,” Brooks said. “But I didn’t want him to win tonight.”
Sometimes with Westbrook, there’s not much you can do to prevent it.