The last time Russell Westbrook was without Kevin Durant (when the latter sat out most of 2014-15 with an injury), he rose to the challenge with aplomb. In fact, that’s an understatement; Russ went berserk. With Durant out, he took 22 shots a game (up from 17 the season before), averaged 28.1 points every outing and claimed Durant’s NBA scoring title. Now, he’s flying solo again, and the question on every NBA fan’s lips has been: what on earth is going to happen? How many shots is Russ going to jack up? Could he actually become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double? And will any of it matter if his team stinks?
The first week of the NBA season has given us some pretty good insights into the answers for all those questions; behold the brilliance and craziness that has been the week in Russell Westbrook.
Wednesday 10/26: at Philadelphia
The first game of the season, wherein two important patterns are established: a) Russell Westbrook will take many, many shots, score many, many points and generally fill up the stat sheet like a magnificent lunatic; and b) despite Russell Westbrook doing these things, it is by no means certain that his Oklahoma City Thunder will win games.
This year, the Philadelphia 76ers aren’t as historically dismal as they’ve been for the last few years, but they’re still a long way from being a good team by NBA standards, and they’re a team that any NBA team with playoff aspirations should beat with ease. Russ duly put them to the sword, missing a triple-double by a single assist – he bagged 32 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. And yet, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that OKC put Philly away; the game was even at the half, and the 76ers took a six-point lead into the last quarter. With a bit of luck and/or some better decision making by Joel Embiid, the former 2014 number three draft pick finally making his NBA debut after a succession of injuries, they might well have won.
Friday 10/28: vs Phoenix
Hoo boy. Only two games into the season, and Russ delivers the Russell Westbrook game we’ve all been waiting for: a ridiculous, spectacular, unconstrained monument to excess. This was the Versailles of basketball games. It was wonderful. And it was absurd. Russ took 44 shots – FORTY-FOUR SHOTS – to score his 51 points; he also grabbed 13 rebounds and dished 10 assists, making this his first triple-double of the season, and the first 50-point triple-double since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975.
The NBA hasn’t seen anything like this since… well, Kobe Bryant’s last game, in which Kobe took 50 shots, because of course he did. Kobe’s farewell game was an aberration; this game looked like the sort of thing Westbrook might repeat at any time this year. He did everything. His teammates did very little. (Victor Oladipo was the only other Thunder player to tally double figures.) He basically tried to beat the relatively lowly Phoenix Suns on his own. He did, but it took an overtime period, a couple of Oladipo hustle plays and an unfortunate bounce for Phoenix at the end of regulation to get him and his team over the line.
Sunday 10/30: vs LA Lakers
Another triple-double, and one that OKC coach Billy Donovan referred to as “sustainable,” in that Russ did not take 44 shots. In fact, Russ only took a relatively restrained 21 shots in the process of putting up 33 points; he added 11 rebounds and 16 assists, the latter making for a far more balanced performance. And, whaddya know, OKC won handily, pulling away in the last quarter to beat the Lakers 113-96. This was good Russ. This was Russ passing the ball, getting his teammates involved and making good decisions. This was… sustainable.
Wednesday 11/2: at LA Clippers
The good: 35 points! Six rebounds and five assists! The bad: 35 points on 30 shots! The ugly: 0/7 from behind the three-point line. And 10 turnovers.
If the Phoenix game was peak Westbrook-as-stat-sheet-stuffer, this was peak Westbrook-as-maddeningly-inconsistent-mix-of-brilliance-and-inexplicable-awfulness. He hogged the ball (again, none of his teammates broke double figures), threw up brick after brick from behind the arc, and turned the ball over with alarming regularity. And yet, when it came time for the game to be won, it was Russ who won it: he scored all of OKC’s points in the last four minutes of the game, including a 17-footer with 18 seconds left that effectively sealed the win. Russ giveth, Russ taketh away.
Thursday 11/3: at Golden State
In which the much-anticipated rematch between Russ and Kevin Durant goes horribly, horribly wrong for the former. One suspects that both players were as sick of the hype before this game as the rest of us – it’s been exactly four months since Durant announced his departure from OKC, and in that period, every single little move that KD or Russ has made, every statement, every, and every strange outfit has been scrutinized and over-analyzed for the slightest hint of acrimony. (This reached its peak last night with the internet trying to work out whether Westbrook’s, um, curious choice of attire was some sort of sly dig at Durant. Does wearing a photographer’s vest constitute a shot at someone whose hobby is photography? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?)
Anyway, all the anticipation was finally over when the two teams took the floor, and what ensued was a stark reminder of the fact that one great player cannot beat four great players and Zaza Pachulia. After a closely-fought first quarter, the Warriors slaughtered the Thunder in the second, dominating every facet of the game in opening as 25-point halftime lead. At the center of everything Golden State did was a grinning Kevin Durant, clearly enjoying every moment of getting one over his old team. Durant put up 29 in the first half, finishing with a game-high 39.
Westbrook, by contrast, had a stinker. He made only four of his 15 shots, and for the first time this year, failed to lead the Thunder in scoring. (He had 20; his backcourt partner Victor Oladipo had 21.) This sequence pretty much sums up how the game went:
Durant misses a short jumper, but Zaza Pachulia taps the rebound straight back to him, and a wide-open Durant duly drains a three. Westbrook dribbles the ball up the floor and is mobbed by Golden State’s defense. He’s double-teamed at the elbow, tries to throw up… a pass? A shot? It’s unclear, but either way, it results in a turnover to end a possession in which only Westbrook has touched the ball. Steph Curry grabs the loose ball, charges up the floor, and whips a casually brilliant behind-the-back pass to Durant. Durant launches another three. Bang.
Westbrook’s trying to do it all on his own; Durant is not. Russ has to pretty much do it all on his won; Durant does not. Only one of these men has a chance of winning a Championship in June. No prizes for guessing which one.