Thunder’s Russell Westbrook demanding MVP attention

OKLAHOMA CITY – If not for the hand of Kendrick Perkins, Russell Wesbtrook would be the leading candidate for MVP this season.

So much to consider this season where the Thunder started 3-12, have had Kevin Durant in just 27 games and have turned over their roster on regular occasion.

But consider this: Westbrook’s play –€“ with and without Durant –€“ is why the Thunder are in position to be the best team in the NBA threading into March, April and the NBA playoffs.

Durant carried the Thunder a season ago when Westbrook missed extensive time, on the way to becoming the MVP, and he did it with his laid-back, assassin style. This season, it’s Westbrook doing the same, only he’s in your face, all up in your business and if he doesn’t have your attention already, he’ll demand it and take it. 

Kind of like Sunday night when Westbrook cut up Denver for 21 points, 17 assists and eight rebounds in 27 minutes in a 119-94 walk-over. So easy, so effective and like J-Lo on Oscar Night –€“ unable to be ignored.

The Thunder are playing their best basketball of the year, winners of six in a row and eight out of their past nine. They have gone from playoff outsider to a playoff favorite by just about anyone with a microphone or a keyboard. 

There’s been drama and intrigue, injuries and criticism. Additions of Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler into the starting lineup have already looked good, seamless and successful. D.J. Augustin, is a more than capable back-up point guard. There’s been a defection from Reggie Jackson and the loss of fan-favorite Kendrick Perkins. 

And then there’s been Russ.

"He was," Scott Brooks paused, shook his head and smiled, "he was, nearly flawless." 

This franchise might belong to Kevin Durant but this season is all Russell Westbrook’s. His good games aren’t just good, they are, "I’m going to remember this one for a long time," kind of good. Like Sunday. Like when he went for 17 points, 16 assists and 15 rebounds against Golden State in January. Durant has moments that string together in a montage of mastery. Westbrook is an animated burst of action that can blind you if you stare directly at it.

"My job is to come out and lead the team to victory," he said, commenting on the impending MVP talk.

OK, but the MVP race will be won or lost by Westbrook. He’s in charge now. Of this Oklahoma City team and of its future success this season. 

Durant is out after as second procedure on his foot and you could make the case the Thunder aren’t winning any championship without both Westbrook and Durant, but you could make the case if Westbrook and Durant had both been healthy this season, the Thunder’s record would have demanded Westbrook be part of the MVP talk.

"I don’t get involved in those discussions," Brooks said. "I get to see him every night. He does so many great things and does it every night. He’s a no-excuse player. A great leader. He’s been playing this way for a long time for a lot of years. KD and Russ have been that way. They’re better players year to year."

Westbrook missed 14 games at the beginning of the season when he bumped into Perkins’ elbow breaking a bone in his right hand. Westbrook is in the top six in scoring and in assists, but because OKC started 3-12 and hasn’t had Durant around except for about half the games, Westbrook has suffered.

"If he had started at the beginning of the year, he might have already won it with the way he’s playing right now," Denver guard Ty Lawson said. 

Sunday, Westbrook sat out the fourth quarter and still put on a show. Saturday in Charlotte, he had 33 points and 10 assists. The game before that against Dallas, Westbrook went for 34 points and 10 assists. He had 41 in the All-Star break and was the MVP and had back-to-back 45 point games earlier this month.

Overall, it’s translated to 26.2 points per game, 7.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds.  Lately, it’s been been a Scorched Earth approach as Westbrook has led the Thunder back to among the elite teams in the league. A few more wins and Westbrook will be challenging Steph Curry in the MVP race.

"His name is going to be tossed in there," new Thunder guard Kyle Singler said. "A lot of it has to do with where you are in the standings."

And a lot of that will be determined by Westbrook, too.

Durant didn’t play for a second-consecutive game after undergoing another surgery on his foot Sunday. He’ll be evaluated in about a week, but there is no timetable set for his return.

And sure, Sunday’s win was against a listless Denver team going nowhere. Serge Ibaka scored 20 points. Kanter had 20 points and 12 rebounds. Dion Waiters had 17 points and Mitch McGary and Anthony Morrow chipped in 19.

A highly satisfying team performance by the Thunder.

But it was Westbrook’s energy and attitude that will be the reason he gets in the MVP discussion.

And gets the Thunder back among the league leaders.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK


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