OKLAHOMA CITY – Once accused of trying to do far too much, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook now is doing it all for a Thunder team still left without injured fellow superstar Kevin Durant.
Without the four-time NBA scoring leader beside him for 37 games this season mostly because of a fractured foot diagnosed in preseason, Westbrook has taken Durant’s place atop the league’s leaders, practically lifting his team into playoff contention by himself with do-it-all performances not seen since Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson played.
Since last month’s All-Star Game, in which he was named MVP by the way, Westbrook has averaged 33.3 points a game and delivered triple-double games in points, assists and rebounds in five of his past seven games.
“Even if you don’t follow the NBA, you hear about what he’s doing,” said Timberwolves veteran Kevin Martin, who played one year in Oklahoma City two seasons ago. “They can’t help but hear about it.”
The rest of the NBA has five triple-doubles combined in that time, when Westbrook joined Jordan and Johnson as the only players in the last 40 years who recorded triple-doubles in four consecutive games. (Jordan did it in seven consecutive games during the 1988-89 season.)
“There are no words to describe what he is doing,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said.
Then Rubio used one to do so.
“Unbelievable,” Rubio said.
Wolves coach Flip Saunders used one — “phenomenal” — and then expounded.
“I’ve never seen somebody who’s been able to take a team that loses an MVP-type player and basically carry a team in every statistical aspect there is, from scoring to distributing, rebounding,” Saunders said. “I haven’t seen anyone put as much constant pressure on the defense every time he’s on the floor. He’s attacking you, coming at you. From a coaching perspective, it’s fun to watch. You watch film and you watch it in amazement, just the things he does.”
In another time, most recently last season’s playoffs, Westwood was criticized for being too aggressive, for being too much of a scorer and too little of a playmaking point guard on a team that already had the league’s most dangerous scorer.
In a game two weeks ago, Westbrook scored 39 points in a loss at Phoenix but needed 38 shots to do so. That night, TNT analyst Charles Barkley implored Westbrook to facilitate shots for teammates Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter and not shoot 38 times just because he can get a shot every time down the floor.
“You can be a good player, you can even be a really good player, but you can’t become a great player until you learn how to make the guys around you better,” Barkley said.
Westbrook’s sheer statistics have placed him this past month in the conversation for league MVP, a discussion that until about All-Star weekend included only Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Houston’s James Harden’s and Cleveland’s LeBron James. In February, Westbrook joined Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history who averaged 30 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in a single month.
He has kept the Thunder relevant — and winners in 10 of its past 14 games despite losing four of the past seven — while Durant has missed three weeks because of soreness in a healing fractured foot that also caused him to miss the season’s first 17 games. Westbrook missed 14 games himself early in the season because of a broken bone in his hand and played on recently with a facial fracture by wearing a protective mask.
Once 5-13 without either of its superstars, the Thunder now is 35-29 and a half-game behind New Orleans for the West’s eighth and final playoff spot. If Durant returns healthy and the Thunder claims that last playoff spot, Martin said his former team will be the greatest No. 8 seed in NBA history, and Westbrook won’t be known as the guy who tried to do too much.
“Well, what is too much and what is not?” Rubio asked. “He’s helping the team. He’s doing everything he can to help the team win. Of course, when you’re playing good and even not, there’s a lot of people who talk bad about you just because they’re jealous or whatever. He’s playing great. There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s playing at an MVP level. Of course, you could find a couple mistakes. You can find mistakes in Jordan’s game.
“Nobody’s perfect. What he’s doing is unbelievable and we just have to enjoy it.”
Saunders insists Westbrook is the same now without Durant as he always was when they were together in a journey that took both once to the 2012 NBA Finals but no further after the Thunder lost in five games to Miami.
“People talk about him, but I always say he does these things because that’s his competitiveness,” Saunders said. “He wants to win and so he’s going to do whatever it takes to win.
‘‘If he thinks he needs to get 40 points, 20 rebounds, 15 assists, that’s what he’s going to do. I don’t think he ever did what he did because of ‘Hey, I want to be a scorer, I want to be the main guy.’ He does it because he wants to win.”