Russell Westbrook didn’t have to return this early, but Russell Westbrook couldn’t seem to help himself on his way toward making a very Russell Westbrook-like return.
The Oklahoma City Thunder guard came back just four days after undergoing surgery to repair a fracture in his right cheek to score a career-high 49 points, nab a career-high 16 rebounds and dish 10 assists alongside three steals in OKC’s 123-118 overtime win over Philadelphia. He became the first player to have four consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan had seven in a row in 1989. The only other players in NBA history to have four straight triple-doubles are Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Maurice Stokes.
Westbrook's 49 also tied one Larry Joe Bird for the most points in a triple-double in the past 30 seasons.
Westbrook, whose face was literally dented by an inadvertent knee to the face from teammate Andre Roberson on Friday night, showed absolutely no hesitation despite playing through the fracture.
Wearing a facemask (and, at times, with an upside-down NBA headband, which he will no doubt hear about from the league office) for the first time in his career, Westbrook crashed bodies in two early possessions while going after steals, and he scored his first five points by putting his head down and diving right into Sixers defenders. Any thoughts the MVP candidate would be hesitant in working through his facial fracture were dashed just a few minutes into the contest.
Westbrook’s first make of the game came at the 8:45 mark of the first quarter, tossing in a runner as Philly big man JaKarr Sampson whapped him on the face, sending Russell to the line. With Kevin Durant out, Westbrook attacked early and often: He attempted to set up his teammates several times to start the contest, but when their attempts fell short and Philly ran out to an eight-point lead, Russell was forced to dial up his own offense.
The Western Conference February Player of the Month managed nine points and three assists in the game’s first 5 1/2 minutes, as the Thunder roared back to take the lead against the hapless Sixers. With his team down 15 after a surprising initial surge from Philadelphia, Westbrook emerged from a timeout with this gem:
This dunk marked the first two points of a 20-2 run to end the first period, a run that fed mostly off of Westbrook’s brilliance. He finished the period with 16 points, six rebounds and three assists. Westbrook also played the entire first quarter. Though it should be noted that two of the Thunder’s strongest runs came with him on the bench (he was a minus-14 on the night), it was absolutely astonishing to see Westbrook gather more and more strength as the game moved along. He would have had 17 rebounds as well, had he not pawed his last carom just after the game’s final buzzer.
The Thunder are in the middle of a relatively easy stretch of games, which not only made Russell’s return a small surprise, but the fact that the Sixers (led by eight 3-pointers and 31 points from the recently acquired Isaiah Canaan) competed this well was a borderline shocker. The 76ers’ work on Wednesday, however, doesn’t take away from the idea that the MVP candidate could have decided to take a little more time off.
Westbrook missed a game on Sunday against the tanking Lakers, the Sixers’ 2014-15 season ended sometime in June 2013 and the Thunder are set to take on the Kyle Lowry-less Toronto Raptors, the Blake Griffin-less Los Angeles Clippers, the Western doormat Minnnesota Timberwolves and the Derrick Rose- and Jimmy Butler-less Chicago Bulls twice in games perched between Westbrook’s injury and the Ides of March. The opportunity to string this out was there.
Even with Durant injured, it would seem that a win over Philadelphia would be all but assured, but Westbrook’s dogged determination won out. And outside of a few more trips to the towel rack (it can get sweaty under there), the 2015 All-Star Game MVP didn’t seem to be bothered by the mask – although he did ditch the headband in the game’s final moments.
He did, in the days leading up to his return, take a little issue with his paucity of NBA-approved facemask options. From a question and answer session with Anthony Slater at NewsOK.com:
Did you have any say in what the mask is going to look like?
Just regular. I mean, you can’t get crazy with the mask. The league is only going to [allow] me to have the clear mask. So that’s all I got.
The NBA couldn’t make an exception for one of its most stylish players? Especially after the four-week run he just peeled off? Let’s let the NBA’s own website discuss Westbrook’s lights-out month of February:
Westbrook averaged 31.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists as the Thunder went 9-3 in February. He joined Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to put up a 31-9-10 line for a calendar month (minimum 10 games played). Westbrook capped the month by becoming the first player to record three consecutive triple-doubles since James in March 2009. Westbrook also ended the month with six consecutive games with at least 20 points, 10 assists and five rebounds, the first player to do this since Michael Jordan in 1988-89.
The Thunder are pretty well chuffed to have Westbrook play through what he calls his “little den.”
After a win on Wednesday and a 9-3 February run, Oklahoma City would seem to have the best odds to hang onto the final playoff spot in the Western Conference bracket – the squad is currently a game up on an injury-addled (though improving -- really, really improving) New Orleans Pelicans team heading into Thursday night’s contest with Chicago. Durant won’t play in that game either, but OKC seems to have more than enough to circle the wagons.
Yes, the win came over a lacking Sixers outfit. And, yes, the Thunder were often at their best with Westbrook off the floor, but it hardly matters. Russell Westbrook is having an outstanding season, and even though he has missed 15 of his team’s 61 games so far, this is a player who should be seriously considered as the NBA readies the home stretch of its MVP race.
If Westbrook had been healthy all season? This MVP race would have been over weeks ago.
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