BY TIM MCMAHON
ESPN Staff Writer
March 6, 2017
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Has there ever been a more spectacular, impressive, disappointing performance in NBA history?
In a critical road game with significant playoff-seeding implications, Russell Westbrook put up 45 points on a sizzling shooting night, capping it with yet another clutch scoring flurry to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 103-100 victory Wednesday night over the Memphis Grizzlies. He dished out 10 assists, including one for a Doug McDermott 3-pointer that accounted for the only Thunder points that weren’t by Westbrook in the heart-pounding final five minutes at FedEx Forum. He even had a season-high five steals.
But he finished with only nine rebounds on a night when he could have broken the Big O’s 55-year-old record for triple-doubles in a season? C’mon, man!
“It’d be nice if he’d grab the ball!” Thunder coach Billy Donovan cracked, referring to a rebound that Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter stole from Westbrook with 1.2 seconds remaining, tipping it to Andrew Harrison for a 3 that pulled Memphis to within a point. “It bounced off his hand. It was right there in his lap, right?”
Even Westbrook, a man not exactly known for yukking it up with the media, found humor in the focus being on a rebound he didn’t get immediately after such a phenomenal individual performance that guaranteed that the Thunder would finish ahead of the Grizzlies, no worse than sixth in the Western Conference. He chuckled when asked about the rebound that got away, costing him what would have been his 42nd triple-double of the season, one more than Oscar Robertson recorded in 1961-62.
“I mean, I think that people obviously come to see that,” said Westbrook, who is now only six assists shy of guaranteeing that he’ll join Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season. “It was a lot of people here to see that as well, but it happens like that. We’ve got a lot of games left. I’m happy we got the win. That was the most important part to me.”
Westbrook was in perfect position to get the rebound if Harrison missed. But it was a swish by the Grizzlies’ fill-in starter at point guard, a 28.9 percent 3-point shooter this season. And Westbrook was well aware at the time what that rebound would have meant.
“The crowd was screaming it, so I heard it,” said Westbrook, who has finished a rebound shy of a triple-double twice and an assist shy five times this season. “I heard it.”
If Westbrook had his way, he would have had one more shot at rebound No. 10 before the buzzer sounded. After being fouled with eight-tenths of a tick left, he tried to miss his second free throw — not to pad his numbers, but to minimize Memphis’ odds of getting a final shot. But as Westbrook started to dart toward the basket, hoping to tip the ball away, his high-arcing shot went through the net.
“See, that’s what type of night it is! I make that one,” Westbrook said, laughing at his luck.
It was the kind of night when Westbrook felt as if he couldn’t miss. He matched his career high with eight 3-pointers made on 13 attempts, finishing 14-of-25 from the field.
And Westbrook was money when it mattered most. He hit a deep 3 over Harrison to give the Thunder the lead with 2:00 remaining. His next shot was even more breathtaking and cold-blooded: a pull-up dagger 3 in the face of Tony Allen, perhaps the best perimeter defender of the past decade, to put Oklahoma City up four with 14 seconds left.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Westbrook has been at his best during winning time all season long, which ranks right below the whole triple-double deal among the reasons that he has one heck of a case to be named MVP.
Westbrook’s 241 points in the clutch — the final five minutes of a game when the score is within five points — is by far the most in the NBA this season. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, he’s only 10 points shy of 2007-08 LeBron James for the most clutch points scored by any player in a season over the past 20 years. And the 45-33 Thunder are plus-80 with Westbrook on the floor in those situations.
In other words, the Thunder are sitting in the No. 6-seed position, almost certainly headed for a first-round meeting with the fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets, in large part because Westbrook keeps willing them to wins.
Of course, his box-score-stuffing consistency has been a huge help, too. Oklahoma City is 32-9 when Westbrook records a triple-double — and 13-24 when he doesn’t. The Thunder wouldn’t be a playoff team without Westbrook putting together one of the most statistically remarkable seasons ever seen in the sport.
That historic next triple-double will almost certainly happen during this four-game trip, most likely Friday night in Phoenix, considering the fact that Westbrook has triple-doubles in 11 of the past 14 games and the tanking Suns aren’t much of an obstacle. The basketball world will certainly be watching in anticipation.
“I really mean this: No one [on the Thunder] really talks about all this stuff,” Donovan said. “I get when I come out here and people want to talk about it because it is historic, but as it relates to our team, we’re just trying to do the things we have to do so we can play well. Because once the regular season ends and the playoffs start, it won’t be a topic of conversation anymore, so there’s only about six more days of this.
“And I think it’s all positive — and I say that in the most respectful way — because what Oscar Robertson has meant to the game and what he’s done for the game so long ago and what he did during that season to average a triple-double, I think everybody felt that would never be done again in the history of the game. The fact that he’s doing it and all of us can share in it and be a part of it, it is really, really special. But we also understand too that we all have a job to do.”
Westbrook’s job is to do it all, and he keeps delivering in sensational fashion, even with fans hoping to see history leave the arena disappointed.