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Russell Westbrook capped his season-long assault on opposing defenses and rims in characteristically bombastic fashion on Wednesday night. The All-Star point guard torched the hapless Minnesota Timberwolves to the tune of a franchise-record 34 first-half points, making 11 of his 16 field-goal attempts and 10 of his 13 foul shots in 20 minutes of work to stake his Oklahoma City Thunder to a 22-point lead that they wouldn't relinquish and breezing to a 138-113 victory.
Westbrook would tack on three more in the third quarter before sitting out the fourth, finishing with 37 points to go with eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals in 32 minutes of work. His 29th 30-plus-point outing of the 2014-15 campaign was enough to confirm his status as the NBA's leading scorer this season, as he finished with an average of 28.1 points per game, taking the reins from injured running mate/2013-14 scoring champ Kevin Durant to clinch the first scoring title of his seven-year NBA career.
His former teammate, Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden, finished second with an average of 27.4 points per game after closing the regular season with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists (his fourth triple-double of the year) in the Rockets' 117-91 win over the Utah Jazz. (Harden, who appeared in 81 of 82 games for Houston, led the league in total points with 2,217; Westbrook, who was limited by injuries to 67 appearances, finished third with 1,886, 14 points behind Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.)
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But while Westbrook came out on top in the scoring race, it's Harden whose season continues, as the Southwest Division champion Rockets move on to face the Dallas Mavericks in a first-round matchup that begins Saturday. Westbrook's Thunder saw their season end Wednesday, when Anthony Davis led the New Orleans Pelicans past the San Antonio Spurs to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, eliminating Oklahoma City from postseason contention.
Despite everything he'd done — despite the triple-doubles, the remarkable individual scoring displays, the yeoman's work of breaking down defenses to set the table for his teammates (he notched direct assists on 47.3 percent of his team's baskets, second only to Chris Paul) and the single-minded pursuit of winning that led him to come back four days after reconstructive face surgery — Westbrook couldn't carry a Thunder team missing Durant and top interior defender Serge Ibaka past the Pelicans, and wouldn't be participating in the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year. As he faced down that reality, Westbrook seemed to take no solace in the fact that he'd just earned the scoring crown:
“I thought we showed maturity,” said Russell Westbrook [...] “Obviously with the injuries and different things of that nature throughout the season a team could have easily given up. Obviously we made some changes and trades and different things like that. That could have been another excuse that we gave ourselves. But we never gave up. We competed all 82 games, and I’m proud of that.”
Westbrook was far less fulfilled with his newly minted scoring crown.
“Sh**,” Westbrook said when asked what it meant. “It doesn’t mean nothing. Good job. Hooray. I’m at home, watching other teams play. It doesn’t mean nothing.”
Westbrook's response is both perfectly brusque and admirable. For all the critiques of his game as too focused on creating shots for himself rather than others, of his style as insufficiently "pure" at the point guard position, of his mannerisms as too self-interested to satisfactorily lead a team, he comes away from reaching one of the NBA's premier individual goals — the status of saying, "I can score more than anybody else in the league" — feeling unfulfilled and angry, because it didn't accomplish his broader team goal.
This is what we say we want from superstars — unbridled and ecstatic individualism in the moment of on-court release, followed by unassuming sublimation to the needs of the many in the postgame presser. Even in his moment of failure, Russ was still setting the table, still giving us what we wanted, albeit with a four-letter precursor.
And yet, admirable though the response may be, I can't help but disagree. While the scoring title itself might not mean much, what Westbrook did to get there? The sheer control he exerted over games, over opposing defenses, over his teammates, his own body and, at times, seemingly even over the laws of physics? That meant something.
Watching Russell Westbrook spend the 2014-15 season attacking the basket like his pores were on fire, like his life depended on it, like his salvation lay just inside the cylinder — and watching him do it repeatedly, administering the nightly shot of adrenaline that kept Oklahoma City's heart beating past its expected expiration date — meant something. That mattered. That was huge. That was must-see television, an example of fury made flesh that demanded our attention. That was, if not the reason we do this, then damn sure one of them.
It was one of the most singularly remarkable individual runs in recent memory, and we don't have to pretend it wasn't just because it didn't produce the desired outcome or last as long as its creator might have liked. You don't have to win to matter. Greatness — blinding, obvious, awe-inducing excellence — should be allowed to simply stand on its own merits.
"He's had a season for the ages," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game, according to Royce Young of ESPN.com. "He's done things on both ends, rebounding, passing, scoring, defending, that hasn't been seen in decades."
And, by some measurements, ever:
And now it's over, and Westbrook will go home, and the Thunder will go about the business of retooling — of getting Durant and Ibaka healthy, of preparing for the draft lottery, of determining whether they want to shell out to re-up restricted free-agent center Enes Kanter, and so on. We'll turn the page and move on, because we always do. For now, though, it's worth lingering a little longer in this in-between time, where we can take a second to take stock of what Westbrook just did, even if he doesn't want to.
Couldn't have said it better myself, KD. (Well, maybe we could've used an expletive or two.)
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