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Why this Russell Westbrook pass is his most magical MVP movement

This nutmeg pass is Russell Westbrook personified.

Russell Westbrook pulled off the pass of the season in the Thunder’s huge win over the Raptors on Thursday. In fact, it might be more than the pass of the season. This might have been the best pass in the past several seasons. We’ll need to let the pass stand on its own feet for a little while, but someday we might look back and say: lo, that was the greatest pass ever.

For now, we’ll just say damn this is a good pass.

Russell Westbrook, nutmegging.

Let us consider all the ways in which this play is magical.

The obvious: it’s a cross-court bounce pass in traffic in stride

Cross-court passes in the open court are dangerous. Make a bounce pass and you’re slowing it down and introducing opportunity for disruption. Do all of that in traffic and you are begging for the ball to be kicked or deflected. Trying to weave an accurate pass that distance amid a tangle of waving arms and churning legs is insanely difficult.

Consider Westbrook’s decision tree here. The Thunder do not have numbers: Victor Oladipo and Taj Gibson are sprinting down the court ahead of Westbrook, but the Raptors rotated two back on the steal. DeMar DeRozan is shaded toward Westbrook to stop the ball, and Cory Joseph is running back with Oladipo and Gibson. Westbrook is the fastest player on the court, but Toronto’s other defenders are collapsing back as well. Toronto is getting back pretty well off of a live ball turnover, all told.

Westbrook can

  1. Drive all the way to the rim in attempt to blow past DeRozan and/or draw a foul.
  2. Pull up from 25 feet.
  3. Attempt a difficult pass to Gibson or Oladipo.
  4. Probe and pull back for a trailer or a halfcourt set.

He chooses the most difficult but most spectacular option. And it works! This decision is not dissimilar from Westbrook’s decision to re-up with Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant left.

The brain-tickler: Going through Cory Joseph’s legs

This will be debated for time immemorial: did Westbrook intend to nutmeg Joseph? Because of where Gibson is, and because Oladipo has to reach back a little for the pass, it appears the pass is intended for the big man. That would indicate the pass was intended to go behind Joseph.

But on repeat viewings — I mean, repeat viewings — it appears that if Westbrook had passed behind Joseph, Gibson may have had to reach back for the ball, slowing his momentum and perhaps leaving a tougher lay-up. As it is, the bounce pass through Joseph’s legs would have hit Gibson in stride if Oladipo hadn’t been there to receive it. It would have been a tiny bit ahead of Gibson, just as it ended up a tiny bit behind Oladipo. However, Gibson also appears to be slowing up so as not to trip his teammate.

The verdict: Westbrook likely intended to go through Joseph’s legs, but was trying to hit Gibson with the pass, not Oladipo.

What made this so Westbrook

This incredible pass cannot be fully assessed out of context.

  1. It was Westbrook’s 10th assist in the game. There were two minutes left in the first half, and this was his 10th assist.
  2. It came as the Thunder took control of the game. Midway through the second quarter, OKC had a 38-36 lead. This score gave the Thunder a 14-point lead four minutes later. Westbrook scored or assisted on every OKC basket in the interim.
  3. Westbrook finished with 24-16-10, his 34th triple-double of the season in 68 games. It was also his fourth straight triple-double, coinciding with four straight Thunder wins. With the victory and the Clippers’ loss, OKC moved to within a half-game of the No. 5 seed, which could potentially set up a second-round series with the Golden State Warriors.

Russell Westbrook may not win the MVP but damn if he doesn’t deserve a trophy for this pass and all that comes with it.