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Russell Westbrook deservingly and fittingly cradled the Spalding basketball Saturday night, moments after blocking a potential game-tying three from Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert, sealing a win on a night where he tied Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record.
For his critics, it was symbolic, a selfish player with his only friend, the man who truly lived by the phrase “now I do what I want” in the aftermath of Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City for the Bay Area years ago.
For those who champion him, the moment epitomized the misunderstood player who would do anything to win, the loyal teammate who brought enough juice for himself and the 12th man, the flawed underdog.
Russell Westbrook, on a night he broke Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record in Atlanta and every day before and since, is everything you think and everything you don’t.
The guy you’d pay to see play is also the player you’d be afraid of controlling your team’s fate in the last two minutes, the man who averaged 26.2 points, 15.8 rebounds and 16.4 assists in the last five games.
The middle ground is a sacred place, because it’s a tightrope more than a vast land. Opinions are so vast, even those who are lukewarm to Westbrook find themselves defending him when the hand of criticism is too heavy, that there’s little nuance in discussing his game.
The advanced stats crowd will only give him dead flowers, and the numbers don’t lie. The turnovers are ugly, the shooting isn’t pretty and the defense can be worse than both.
But that passion is what viewers tune into watch, what fans pay to see, what teammates often gravitate to — some things that can’t be measured, yet have to been seen to be appreciated. And not even the passage of time will do it justice, because some things have to be absorbed in the moment.
Robertson’s record was deemed unbreakable, largely because the game doesn’t call for one man to have all that power. Because Robertson’s record was set during a time well before this era, it was mythologized and almost limiting to him. He became more known for the record than his play, so his embracing of Westbrook isn’t surprising. It’s almost refreshing to see the generational gap bridged and for Robertson to have one victory lap, being introduced to a new segment of basketball fans, before passing the torch.
Nobody else seemed to make it a priority as much as Westbrook did — the same hard-playing, energetic ballplayer who compiled eight triple-doubles in his first six seasons. Nobody believed he gave less when he was a younger, more athletic version of himself.
Westbrook just wanted it, all of it. He won’t admit it, and perhaps he never should, but garnering those statistics meant something to him. After years of taking strays that should’ve been meant for others, Westbrook went for his and decided to play on his terms — all the time.
He leaned into the havoc as opposed to controlling it, perhaps believing he was more fit to fly blind than opponents were to stop him.
The feeling it produced, the way he single-handedly — by choice, not circumstance — took a spurned franchise and gave it worth. Even in a single, round number, it was the sole reason he won the MVP in 2017. Because 31, nine and nine just wasn’t going to be good enough for him or anyone else who fell under his spell.
That 2016-17 team wasn’t toothless or paralyzed, with Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and a rookie Domantas Sabonis in tow. Oladipo and Sabonis blossomed a year later after leaving Westbrook, and it’s hard to say whether Westbrook inspired them or held them back.
Perhaps it’s both.
Westbrook sits at the intersection between efficiency and desire, usually heading toward desire when a shot goes up.
Switching defenses and more threes means longer rebounds for guards to grab, and even being under the rim now isn’t the same torture chamber it used to be when Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley patrolled, or Dennis Rodman’s acrobatic feet, or anyone’s wide elbows ready to knock a guard who wandered into the paint into next week.
In front of Westbrook’s 11.6 rebounds per game: Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas, Sabonis and Nikola Vucevic. Not exactly a murderer’s row of intimidating figures.
But he goes and gets them, sees the ball for the taking and takes it. It’s as selfish as a pursuit for the scoring title or any other individual accolade. It’s as ambitious as a low-level recruit grinding his way to being the fourth pick in the 2008 draft and being called a reach, and never losing that ambition.
“Just you watch,” said an executive who’s seen Westbrook up close this year. “He’s going to get them into the playoffs.”
“No. The playoffs. I don’t care who they’re facing, he’s gonna get them in the final eight.”
But perhaps that’s as far as it goes, seeing as how the last real memory Westbrook has produced on the big stage was blowing a 3-1 lead to Golden State in 2016 — highlighted by a Game 6 at home where the Thunder couldn’t get up a shot attempt in the last two minutes.
Oftentimes, that falls on the point guard, and it’s more damning than any stat can uplift.
Westbrook made it out of the first round last season, but it was James Harden’s team and personality — a mixed bag if there ever was one — and Westbrook didn’t like the culture, so he wanted out.
Or maybe it wasn’t his culture, which makes things tricky.
It seems that his style isn’t conducive to real winning, that it hinders the group more than it uplifts them. The old saying, “Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a day — if you teach him to fish, you feed him for many days,” comes to mind.
There’s value in helping your team in ways that can’t be computed — cutting off the ball to create space, the hockey assist, a well-timed double-team — but it won’t be celebrated as a round number with rebounds and assists.
Gaming the game that way feels dirty in a sense, almost preventing teammates from being involved on their own and creating a dependency that doesn’t foster growth. The manipulation may not have that long-term goal in mind, but leaders are responsible for its effects.
Leaders are also responsible for reading the room, if not setting the temperature. Westbrook plays for the Washington Wizards, a franchise that hasn’t won 50 games since Michael Jackson dropped “Off the Wall,” couldn’t make a conference final with a healthy John Wall, a franchise that changes nicknames, coaches, franchise players and team colors more than it has memorable moments.
Three playoff series wins in 16 years, a reputation of underachievement and this season’s version doesn’t exactly inspire from a talent standpoint.
But he’s Russell Westbrook, on a team with many players who, not too long ago, were watching him tear up the league at every turn when they were just dreaming of making it big. His energy has permeated through the team in ways it doesn’t seem like others are capable of, perhaps out of fear of disappointing an idol, coaxing effort from young and often inconsistent players.
It’s not rare to see Rui Hachimura or Chandler Hutchison flying downcourt in anticipation of a Westbrook pass on the break, knowing there’s a good chance he can deliver. Watching Bradley Beal realize he has a teammate he can depend on to at least be in attendance nightly cannot go unrecognized, either.
Westbrook will be debated in this time, in the next lifetime and even so on. He belongs to history as much as he does to the present, and it’s fitting he’ll go down as one of the more polarizing players in NBA history.
Moments after putting up an errant 3-pointer that could’ve won the game Monday night — following a steal that made the finish a frenetic one — he eschewed disappointment to retrieve the game ball from the referee. In that moment once again as he walked up the tunnel, it was just Russ and Spalding.
When you say what he isn’t, make sure you say what he is.
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