The Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in an unthinkable situation that saw them have their backs against the wall and staring down the barrel of missing out on the NBA Western Conference playoffs. They needed a hero, and they had to look no further than number 0. Russell Westbrook as he has done so many times before understood the situation and did whatever it took to get his team over the line.
The Thunder found themselves needing to win two out of their last three games to guarantee themselves a place in the Western Conference playoffs. The previous three games were against a red-hot Houston Rockets team who had the best record in basketball and a well coached and drilled Miami Heat side and finally a terrible tanking Memphis Grizzlies team. Thanks in large part to Westbrook the Thunder have managed to win the first two of those games against the Rockets and Heat. Against the Houston Rockets, Westbrook took it upon himself to defend the potential MVP winner in James Harden who has arguably been the hardest player to guard all season and he completely shut him down. Westbrook made it loud and clear to teammates how he was going to affect the game.
“When the game’s on the line, I knew what needed to be done,” Westbrook said. “And I told Paul and Corey to take somebody else.” Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Westbrook is usually called upon to hit a buzzer beater or lead a fourth-quarter comeback but this was different, and you could see it was a different moment Westbrook had been asked to face. The moment requested Westbrook to be focused, to be disciplined and to display his high level of basketball IQ. Coach Billy Donovan was impressed with Westbrook’s ability to keep his composure and his ability to defend without fouling such a talented offensive player like Harden.
“The biggest thing that Russell did while he was out there was he didn’t foul,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “That was really crucial.”
The Thunder had done the toughest part of this three-game stretch they had taken down the best team in basketball on their home court where they had a 20 game unbeaten streak going. For this team beating great sides hasn’t been their issue it’s defeating the average but still tough teams like their next game at Miami against the Heat, and if you saw the first quarter, it was looking like another Thunder consistency problem and an inability to win the winnable game until Westbrook stepped up.
The Thunder started woefully against the Heat as the Heat began the game on a 23-5 run with the Thunder struggling to score a field goal until the 7: 02-minute mark of the first quarter. The Thunder managed to cut the deficit back in the first quarter to finish the quarter 21-27. It was Westbrook again who stepped up in the second and third quarters. Westbrook gave his team a combined 17 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists in the middle quarters putting his side in striking distance heading into the fourth quarter and ultimately helping taking the game away from the Heat and eventually the win to guarantee the Thunder a playoff spot this season. It was also a meaningful game for Westbrook as he recorded 18 rebounds leaving him needing 16 rebounds to average a triple-double for the second season in a row making him the first player in the history of the NBA to do so.
With the Thunder handling business in Houston and Miami, the game against the Memphis Grizzlies didn’t have as much riding on it or at least not as much as the previous two games did. This game was much more to do with can and how would Westbrook get his last 16 rebounds to complete his mission of averaging a triple-double for an entire season for the second straight year. There had been a lot of criticism thrown Westbrooks way in regards to his triple-doubles and how he goes about getting his rebounds.
So before the game against the Grizzlies Westbrook aimed back at his critics as only he could.
“A lot of people make jokes about whatever, stat-padding or going to get rebounds,” Westbrook said in an answer largely unrelated to the question that was asked. “If people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could get 15 rebounds, they would. People that’s talking or saying whatever they need to say, they should try doing it and see how hard it is.
“Since everybody wants to be talking, I’m tired of hearing the same old rebound this, stealing rebounds, all this s—. I take pride in what I do. I come out and play, and I get the ball faster than someone else gets to it. That’s what it is. If you don’t want it, I’m gonna get it. Simple as that.”
Quote from Royce Young of ESPN
Westbrook would go on to pull down a career-high 20 rebounds to go along with 19 assists against the Grizzlies to finish the season averaging 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 10.3 assists. There wasn’t the noise around Westbrooks triple-doubles this season, yet it was even more impressive than what he did last season. This season Westbrook didn’t smash you in the face with it, Westbrook didn’t need to lead a comeback where he finished with a stat line of 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists like he did against the Orlando Magic last season. This season it was more likely Westbrook would get a stat line of 26 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists as he did against the New Orleans Pelicans five games ago. Westbrook has made an extraordinary statistic that hadn’t been achieved for decades look entirely ordinary, and for that, he shouldn’t be criticized.
Westbrook wasn’t alone in all of these games but when the most significant moments arrived it was him the man wearing number zero that stood tallest like he does every time. Does he always come through with the win? No. Does he put himself in a position to put all the pressure on his shoulders in the games most significant moments no matter if he succeeds or fails Westbrook will always be there and ready, you can count on that.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man.