Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on March 30.
They lost by 12 against the Rockets three days before, when Russell Westbrook scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and at one point brought his team to within nine after the Thunder had been down by 20-plus. They beat the Mavericks a day later after being down by 13 points with 3:30 left in the game, and Westbrook scored 16 of the Thunder’s last 18 points. In the fourth quarter overtime against the Magic on this night, he scored 26 points. A few nights later, he silenced the Nuggets with another incredible comeback and buzzer beater.
That stretch is why he is the NBA’s MVP. That’s why none of the other terrific candidates — Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, LeBron James — could possibly measure up.
Westbrook’s game-tying shot was an otherwise reckless transition three over two defenders with mere seconds left on the clock. But he was hot. And no one else on that team deserved the glory or burden of that shot more than him. The basket put him at 50 points. He would go on to have 57 total, the most points ever scored while recording a triple-double.
There’s an entry in Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks where he writes: "Atlas was permitted the opinion that he was at liberty, if he wished, to drop the Earth and creep away; but this opinion was all that he was permitted."
The Thunder were 33-9 in the regular season when Westbrook had a triple-double. They only won 47 games total. What he does — these consistently ridiculous performances that have to be reduced and boxed into the category of “triple-double” to be more easily understood — is wholly out of necessity.
The Thunder needed Westbrook to have a once-in-a-generation season, otherwise they would be lost. They needed him to score 19 points in the fourth, or they would have lost to the Magic on this March night. They needed him to be their be-all and end-all, because that is the only way that they can survive, much less thrive.
Inflated rebound numbers be damned — this is not a case of stats padding. Westbrook could have very well done less, but he would have done so knowing that his team would more likely lose. He could have satisfied the critics and preserved himself by lessening his burden of carrying the team, but he would have been purposely putting the Thunder in a vulnerable position. For someone who wants to win every game, that was not an option, not even in overtime during his third game in four days.
Westbrook does not have empty triple-doubles, he has “I will drag us as far as I can” triple-doubles.
This effort against the Magic makes the swipe that the Rockets took at his season seem even sillier.
There is nothing bad that can be said about James Harden, and there’s no need to admonish him in favor of Westbrook. He had a fantastic season of his own, and many other years, he would have won MVP. Harden has done wonders for the Rockets while raising his play to incredible and unforeseen levels. Anyone who besmirches someone to praise another lacks a strong argument, and is probably just a hater.
But we eventually reached a point in the long, annoying MVP argument where Westbrook was disregarded because he’s not as efficient as Harden, because he’s not the playmaker in a Mike D'Antoni offense, because of a small percentage difference — 3 percent — in uncontested rebounds.
We also reached a point where certain stats about how each team’s offense performs without the two MVP candidates on the court, and how much each player raises his team’s play when they do come in the game, were ignored for devious reasons — where advanced statistics were no longer being used to illuminate, but rather to wash away wonder and push an agenda of expertise.
When a player averaged a triple-double for the season — something that has only been done once before, in a league that has had the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James — and the feat is dismissed as empty numbers, then there’s a problem. When an argument against Westbrook was that the Thunder — who should realistically be chasing the eighth or seventh seed, and not the fourth — are not one of the top two teams in the league, then there’s a huge problem. And that problem iswasnot Russell Westbrook.
Just as you do not judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, Westbrook should not have been judged by the standards of Harden. Just as Harden should not be have been judged on the merits of Kawhi Leonard. And Leonard on LeBron James. They are not the same kinds of players, and they are not doing the same things. Harden is leading a resurgent team that is designed to take high quality shots, and he’s doing so at an unprecedented level.
Westbrook was not perfect, and he could certainly be more efficient, but he was also being asked to be an entire offense on his own. He was being asked to be a savior. It’s a role that fit him as much as being a genius facilitator fit Harden this season. The savior role indulged Westbrook’s ego and defiant attitude.
He’s also one of the few players who can handle a team’s failures squarely on his shoulders. The same reason why he takes transition threes over two defenders is the same reason he was perfect for this Thunder team: Westbrook fantastically believes he can do it all. He’s so confident that he can, that the idea and fear of failure doesn’t seem to register for him.
The theme of the Thunder this season was a simple and urgent plea: “Westbrook, please save us.” That’s how it was against the Rockets, the Mavericks, the Nuggets, and the Magic. When other players would scoff at having to exhaust himself every game just to give his team a chance at winning, Westbrook embraced the challenge. He entered this situation without Durant, without Serge Ibaka, with only an outside chance of making the playoffs — whether down 20-plus points, 13 points with three minutes left, or 14 points in the fourth — and asked why not? Why not the Thunder? And especially why not him?
Westbrook is not James Harden. He doesn’t have to be.
He is Russell Westbrook, and he did things this season that should only be possible in Japanese anime. That’s why he won MVP. That’s why he deserved this victory.
There is no need to do mental and analytical gymnastics to reason yourself out of the wonder of his season. He scored the most points ever in a triple-double, and he went perfect from the field in another one. He snatched victory away from other teams by sheer will, as he did against the Mavericks and Magic, and against the Grizzlies when he scored 15 points with 2:35 left to play. He did that and so much more, so that every Thunder game was a must-watch just to see what he came up with next.
That was his case for MVP, and that was why his case won.
The only reason the Thunder made the playoffs — why they were even a subject of discussion — is that Westbrook refused to let them fall apart. He won MVP because he’s willing and capable of having a once in a lifetime season — full of absurd numbers, shattered records, and unimaginable comebacks — to push himself and his team as far as they’ll go.
That is something to be rewarded, not disparaged.