In the midst of delivering one of the great sports speeches of all-time last May in accepting the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, Kevin Durant singled out his teammates seated to his left on the big stage and told a unique story of praise and friendship about each.
He started with the "vets" on the team: "Fish, Nick, Perk, Thabo, Caron, Serge, Hasheem."
Then came "Serge," and a playful jab at the big man’s evolving English.
KD moved on to "my young guys: "Jeremy, Perry, Andre, Steve and Reggie, Grant."
Grant? Few in attendance even knew a guy named Grant Jerrett played for the team. Durant, turning to his teammates seated on three rows of risers, said, "I love all you guys."
And that’s exactly when everybody started to look uncomfortably around the room, to tug at their tightening collars and wonder with wide eyes, "Oh my goodness, did he forget about…?"
And naturally, right on cue, Durant allayed all misplaced fears:
"I know you guys think I forgot Russ. But I could speak all night about Russell; an emotional guy who will run through a wall for me. I don’t take it for granted … I love you, man. I love you. A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player and I’m the first to have your back, man, through it all. Just stay the person you are ….You set the bar. You set the tone. Thank you so much, man. Thank you. You have a big piece of this. You’re an MVP-caliber player. It’s a blessing to play with you, man."
In this twisted Oklahoma City Thunder season that is nearly a complete reversal from the last, when Westbrook missed 36 games with a knee injury and Durant performed nightly miracles not seen since Michael Jordan, it is now Westbrook who is powerfully, emphatically blowing minds as Durant’s nagging right foot has robbed him of 34 games and counting.
Would it not be fitting then come May, if Westbrook is the one standing behind the podium with moist eyes and thanking his teammates one-by-one for making this day, this MVP award possible? And conspicuously leave for last his best buddy, KD, the more likable superstar who some have tried for years to paint as selfish Russ’ enemy.
If Westbrook wasn’t on your MVP list already, surely now he must be in a dead heat with Houston’s James Harden and Golden State’s Stephen Curry. If he hasn’t in fact rocketed by both.
Playing 96 hours after undergoing facial surgery to repair a broken bone that left an honest-to-goodness dent above his right cheek, Westbrook, wearing a protective mask, wrecked Philadelphia on Wednesday for a career-high 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists to secure the important overtime victory.
It was his fourth consecutive triple-double — a streak no player has managed since Jordan.
Before the game, Westbrook was named the Western Conference Player of the Month for February. The competition wasn’t close: Westbrook averaged 31.2 points, 10.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average 31-10-9 for a calendar month.
Need more Jordan? Westbrook became the first since His Airness in 1988-89 to end a month with six consecutive games with at least 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds.
Appropriately enough, Westbrook will go for five consecutive triple-doubles tonight in Chicago against the Bulls in another hugely important game in the playoff chase.
In the MVP debate, Curry no doubt has been electrifying and brilliant as the Warriors have maintained the league’s best record all season. Harden has become a master facilitator and a decent defender to go with his uncanny scoring ability. He’s the turbo-booster behind the Rockets’ 41-20 record despite having lost Dwight Howard for half the season with a knee injury, including the last 17 games.
But Westbrook has had to lead OKC out of a 3-12 hole because of the 14 games he (and Durant) missed in the opening month after he broke his hand in the second game of the season.
When the angriest player in basketball has been on the courr (and that’s now been more often without Durant than with him), it’s become harder to build an MVP case against the 6-foot-3 bullet train of a point guard than for him.
His 49 points against Philly moved Westbrook (27.0 points per game) past Harden (26.9) for No. 1 in the scoring race. He ranks fifth in the league in assists at 8.2 despite playing so often without his easy-scoring sidekick. He ranks first among guards in total rebounds (7.0) and is tied for first among guards in offensive rebounds (1.9).
Westbrook is second among guards in free-throw attempts (9.2), an eyelash shy of Harden (9.5), and he’s tied for first among guards in steals (2.1).
More of this and Westbrook can start thinking about how to surprise KD in his own MVP speech.