Russell Westbrook proving he is MVP candidate
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — 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 teammate.
He’s been that, and then some.
“He’s making big plays,” Thunder center Enes 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.”
There were questions about Westbrook the teammate 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.
He has taken his game to another level and pulled his teammates along. Whatever the team has needed — a big shot , a scoring flurry , a key pass, a defensive play — he has delivered.
Even without Durant to pass the ball to — a four-time scoring champion — 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.”
But it’s impossible to ignore what Westbrook has done.
He 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 at home against Milwaukee, and he could potentially set the mark Wednesday in Memphis.
Oklahoma City has needed every bit of Westbrook’s excellence. The Thunder have 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 teammates — 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 teammate 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.
Though he often looks for his shot late in games, his teammates know to stay ready.
“It looks like he’s totally focused on the rim, and then he’ll find that guy in the corner or whatever it is because he knows where everyone’s at, he knows where the defense is at,” Collison said.
Westbrook has been coming through when it counts the most.
Going into Monday’s games, he was slightly behind Isaiah Thomas for second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring with 9.9 points per game.
“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.”