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Three weeks ago, Mark Cuban said he didn’t think that Russell Westbrook merited consideration in the race for the NBA’s 2016-17 Most Valuable Player award, in part because the Oklahoma City Thunder guard hasn’t quite reached the Dallas Mavericks owner’s established definition of superstardom.
“Kind of the way I define a superstar is, ‘Who do you want the ball in the hands of at the end of a game, or when you need a bucket?’” is how Cuban described his criterion last April. “That’s your superstar.”
Well, after Monday night in Dallas, Cubes might need to update his files.
With 3:31 remaining in the fourth quarter on Monday night, the Thunder looked done. The Mavericks’ diminutive spark plug point guard — no, not J.J. Barea; the other one, Yogi Ferrell — had just shaken OKC center Steven Adams with an evil stepback and a 3-pointer that put Dallas up 91-78, and left the Thunder just over 3 1/2 minutes away from a third dispiriting loss in the last four games.
The thing is, though: you can do a lot of damage in 3 1/2 minutes when Russell Westbrook is on your team.
First, Westbrook dragged the Thunder back into the game, ostensibly through sheer force of will:
And then, with the Thunder trailing by just a point and holding possession after the ball went out of bounds off Barea — thanks to Russ knifing in for a steal and tipping it off the Dallas guard’s hand — Westbrook took an inbounds pass in the backcourt and raced across the timeline. He bore down on ace Mavericks defender Wesley Matthews, and wrong-footed him by raising up for a jumper from the nail that splashed through the net, giving Oklahoma City a one-point lead with 7.1 seconds remaining.
With no timeouts remaining, Rick Carlisle’s club got the ball in and pushed it up the court, with Ferrell looking for an opening once he passed half-court. He crossed from right to left and found a trailing Harrison Barnes, who stepped into a deep but open straight-on 3-point shot. It missed to the right, and Westbrook — who else? — corralled the loose ball as time ran out, firing the ball into the hardwood and exploding with celebratory fist-pumps and chest bumps and hugs as the Thunder held on for an emotional 92-91 win.
Oklahoma City scored the final 14 points of the game, and Westbrook, as he has all season, led the charge in the clutch. He scored 12 of those points and set up (well, via Kobe assist, anyway) the other, as Adams grabbed a rebound of a missed Russ 3 with just under two minutes remaining and put it back in to get the Thunder within six. Westbrook — and some tight Dallas play that saw the Mavs go 0-for-6 down the stretch with two turnovers — took it from there, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat …
… to push the Thunder to 42-31, two games up on the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and just one game behind the Jekyll-and-Hyde Los Angeles Clippers in the race for the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
It wasn’t all peerless dominance for Westbrook in the final few minutes. He missed four of the nine shots he took in the final 3:30, including a pull-up 3 with OKC down by three and just under a minute left and a 20-foot pull-up with the Thunder trailing by one and 19 seconds left on which it looked like he had a chance to attack the slow-footed Dirk Nowitzki in the pick-and-roll and get to the rim for a higher-percentage look.
He also appeared to get away with some not-so-fancy ball-handling and footwork just past the two-minute mark:
But the moments that could have sealed the Thunder’s fate didn’t, and that’s due largely to the mountains Westbrook moved when he was rolling, whether getting all the way to the basket or knocking down tough midrange shots to chop down the deficit and keep Oklahoma City within striking distance. From there, he delivered the death blow, sealing Dallas’ first losing season under Mark Cuban’s stewardship and dropping the Mavs to 31-42, four games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the West’s No. 8 seed with nine games remaining.
The game-winner provided a fitting end to another monster night for Westbrook, who scored a game-high 37 points on 15-for-30 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds, dished 10 assists and snagged two steals in 36 minutes. It was his 37th triple-double of the season, putting him just four behind the 41 that Oscar Robertson notched in the historic 1961-62 campaign that Russ has been chasing all season long, and improving OKC to 30-7 when he hits his numbers:
It also offered yet another reminder of just how undeniable a force Westbrook can be, and why he has ranked at or near the top of so many straw MVP ballots throughout this scintillating season. He’s the guy doing something nobody else has done in 55 years; the guy who rips off multiple double-digit game-closing runs by himself; the guy whose relentlessness can turn around your fortunes in a flash and, in the words of the ever-quotable Adams, “put a bit of lead in the pencil.” He’s an inarguable game-changer, one of very few, and he made sure the Thunder didn’t fall short in a contest they needed to keep pace in a congested Western playoff chase.
“It was our game, and they took it,” Matthews said after the game. While you respect the emphasis on collectivism that led the Dallas swingman to use the plural, it’s really not necessary. Russell Westbrook took what the Thunder needed, when they needed it, and turned it into a win. It’s what he does; it’s what superstars, and MVPs, do.
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