Thunder's Russell Westbrook proves he is great MVP candidate, great team-mate
Russell Westbrook has been stacking up triple-doubles like no-one in half a century and producing late in games like few players in recent memory.
But the historical stats and heroics have somewhat overshadowed one other Westbrook transformation: The national perception he wasn't a good team-mate.
There were questions about Westbrook the team-mate when Kevin Durant left for Golden State in free agency last summer. Then the huge questions about what kind of team would the Thunder have with Westbrook as their unquestioned leader.
Well, he has seized the moment.
Kiwi team-mate Steven Adams, who's nearing the end of his fourth season setting screens for one of the best pick-n-roll operators in the league, said he's long since stopped being amazed what Westbrook does on the basketball court.
In fact, the 23-year-old starting centre for the Thunder prefers a different gauge when assessing Westbrook's value as a running mate.
"The fact that he's a good dude ... I've never been kinda in awe of any basketball player, but it's just like if you're a good bloke. He's a top man. I could be his friend."
Adams' back-up centre, Enes Kanter, was similarly inspired by Westbrook.
"He's making big plays,'' Kanter said. "That's what a big player does. He's taking a lot of responsibility and doing amazing things. And he's making everybody better around him.''
Westbrook has taken his game to another level and pulled his team-mates along. Whatever the team has needed - a big shot, a scoring flurry, a key pass, a defensive play - he has delivered.
Even without Durant - a four-time scoring champion - to pass the ball to, Westbrook is at the same pace for assists as last season.
"As a team, we all do our part,'' Westbrook said. "It's not just me. I'm not just playing by myself. These guys do a lot of different things, whether they are screening or making big shots, defensive plays that allow us to get shots that we've been getting to close games. They've been doing it all season.''
Westbrook needs one more triple-double to match Oscar Robertson's single-season record of 41 set during the 1961-62 season. He'll have the chance to tie Tuesday (Wednesday NZ time) at home against Milwaukee and he could potentially set a new mark Wednesday in Memphis.
Oklahoma City has needed every bit of Westbrook's excellence. The Thunder has a 31-9 record when he gets a triple-double and a 12-24 mark when he doesn't.
All the things that have stood out about Westbrook over the years have put him in position to rewrite the record books. The electrifying dunks, his speed and raw emotion that stems from a relentless competitive drive, they are all still there.
Yet, the intangibles - basketball IQ, leadership and willingness to trust his team-mates - are why he has risen to this level.
"He manages the game so much better than he used to,'' said Thunder forward Nick Collison, who has been Westbrook's team-mate his entire professional career.
"When he first got here, he competed like crazy like he does now, he had a ton of talent, but he was just out there trying to beat his man and just compete.
"I think the place where you see the huge jumps is just his control of the game and his understanding of the game. He's in total control out there.''
Westbrook almost certainly will be the first player since Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season.
He will do so while likely winning his second scoring title. And, while there has been a season-long question of whether he would break down from carrying so much of the load, he actually has gotten stronger since the All-Star break.
His post All-Star averages of 34.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game all are up from his pre-All-Star numbers. He has increased his field goal, 3-point and free throw percentages since the break while playing slightly more minutes.
"He's out of control,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Out of control good. It's fun to watch. What else can you say? When the season started, if somebody said somebody's going to do that, you'd think they were a little wacky. But he's done it, deserves credit for it. He's been super.''
Last Monday, the Thunder trailed Dallas 91-78 with just over three minutes remaining before closing the game on a 14-0 run. Westbrook scored 12 of those points, including the winning 16-footer with 7.2 seconds left in regulation.
Two days later in Orlando, Westbrook scored 26 of his 57 points in just the fourth quarter and overtime. The Thunder trailed by 14 points with just over six minutes left in regulation, but he made a game-tying 3-pointer with 7.1 seconds left to force the extra period, and the Thunder eventually won.
"Especially in the fourth quarter, he's talking to everybody, making sure everybody knows what he's doing,'' Kanter said. "That's what a really good leader does.''