He isn’t reviled, Russell Westbrook hasn’t done anything on or off the court that would deserve that sort of condemnation, but the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard has long been a thorn in the side of a great many NBA fans. Whether they think he doesn’t pass enough to sainted teammate (and MVP candidate) Kevin Durant or if it’s because of his demonstrative nature on the court, Westbrook is often looked upon with a wary eye by some NBA fans.
And now, apparently, some NBA mascots.
In Sunday night’s thrilling Denver Nuggets win over Westbrook’s Thunder, on two different occasions Russell made a point to goaltend what looked like accurate half-court shots from Nuggets mascot “Rocky.” Rocky has long regarded been as one of the NBA’s best and someone that isn’t afraid to ham it up with NBA players, famously including Charles Barkley. During timeouts of Nuggets games, the mascot lines up for a half-court shot he’s made hundreds of times, and if that night adds to his rate of success, the fans in attendance get a free queso creation from a local taco chain.
Westbrook, either unaware or uncaring of the promotion at stake, refused to play along:
Following his first “block,” fans took to booing Westbrook mercilessly in the final minutes of the contest, adding another layer (possibly queso-based, with some sort of bean dip or pico de gallo involved) of excitement to what was already a fantastic game. And then, in an improvised move made because referees were reviewing an out of bounds call (this wasn’t a TV timeout or break in the action called by a team), Rocky thought quickly, grabbed a ball, and tried again.
And Westbrook, leaving the OKC huddle, blocked the shot at the rim again and chucked it into the stands. He then jawed with some fans on mid-court before playing (not great, getting lost on a screen and roll) defense on the next Nuggets possession.
After Danilo Galinari hit a pair of free throws to give his team a 109-106 lead, Westbrook responded by improvising off of a broken play, hitting a dagger of a game-tying 3-pointer with just under 23 seconds left and instantly becoming my next candidate to be chiseled into Mt. Rushmore. Chutzpah of the highest order, which gets Westbrook in trouble at times, but it’s also something that can be more satisfying than anything the NBA has to offer when it works. Russell Westbrook just does not care what you think about him. And I can see Charles Barkley or Larry Bird pulling the same moves, both with the mascot alteration and the clutch hoop.
From there, the Nuggets missed an opportunity to win the game in regulation, but played a tough (if, apparently, mostly improvised) style of basketball in overtime led by Kenneth Faried’s four points and three rebounds. Denver won the OT with a 12-9 margin, as three mistakes by OKC’s regulars tilted the odds in Denver’s favor:
Westbrook went too soon on a screen and roll, fouling Kendrick Perkins out after an offensive foul call. Durant took a makeable but inappropriate 3-pointer in one of the final possessions, and coach Scott Brooks brought Nick Collison (one of the league’s best screeners, but someone who had been sitting for about 30 or 35 minutes of real time at that point) off the bench for Oklahoma City’s last chance while down two points. Collison was a step slow on his screen to free up Durant, and because the referees had been calling any slightly off-kilter screen as offensive fouls for the entirety of the game, Collison was whistled and the Thunder lost their best chance at an overtime win.
Westbrook’s final line? Thirty-six points, eight rebounds, nine assists and seven turnovers. He missed 16 of 26 shots. How did he do following the final back and forth with Rocky? In just over five minutes he put up five points on 2-4 shooting with a rebound, an assist, and two fouls. He wasn’t credited for but wholly deserved the turnover that was created when Perkins was whistled for a moving screen.
Benjamin Hochman, Denver Post Nuggets beat writer extraordinaire, passed along this quote from Nuggies coach George Karl after the game:
“Russell made a lot of friends here,” Nuggets coach George Karl said sarcastically, following Denver’s 121-118 win. “He’s a feisty guy who likes to create intensity. I like intensity. I’m sure the next time we’ll have some locker room talk.
“I saw him block the shot and then he threw the ball into the crowd. I know in the rule book it says you’re not allowed to throw the ball into the crowd.”
Someone in the media scrum then pointed out that there is no actual rule against throwing a basketball that isn’t the game ball in the stands, as Rocky was working with a different sphere in the novelty attempt, which technically makes Russell in the clear from earning a technical foul in what was then a one-point game with less than a minute to go. Ty Lawson, in Hochman’s report, also pointed out that Denver “fans now have a villain.” Which is a good thing, now that the Nuggets can’t blame NBA schedule makers if things don’t go their way.
I was ready to credit the Nuggets for not making these free fast food options available under the usual NBA guidelines — if a team scores a certain number of points in a win. Those promotions have caused several notable instances of teams either being accused of rubbing in a win in order to achieve that pointless late-game goal, or (much worse, especially in Chicago where my hometown really seems to like its special sauce) fans booing a team that had just provided a winning performance for the home crowd. Letting a mascot’s bomb-from-outside act as the skeleton key between a fan and a free fast food option sounds like the right move, instead of basing it on some arbitrary number that turns athletes into charlatans in the last minute of a game merely because they have 99 points with 30 seconds to go in a sure win.
Then the Nuggets hit 111 points on an Andre Miller layup in overtime, and Nuggets TV analyst Scott Hastings reminded fans that they’ll get a free taco deal at a local and very popular taco chain on Monday as a result of the team vaulting past 110 points. And that’s for all Nuggets fans, not just the ones at the stadium with a ticket. It turns out that NBA teams really, really want us to be fat. I suppose giving out a $5 credit at whatever the local chain supermarket is in these various towns doesn’t carry the same cachet, much less offering up a gift certificate for quinoa.
In every way, though, you have to imagine Rocky (long a good sport) loved this just as much as Westbrook enjoyed putting on the black hat.
The fans of Denver missed out on some delicious local queso, a product that Eric Freeman pointed out actually has quite the ardent online following. Maybe Doug Collins can buy some for them. What was gained was our enhanced love of Russell Westbrook’s derring-do, and a potential inter-divisional comedy partnership between RW and Rocky that could last another dozen years.
And also, a whole lot of chances to boo Westbrook the next time Oklahoma City visits Denver on March 1, and the hope that a potential second-round matchup between the two teams goes on for seven games this spring.
When the queso flows like wine.