“I only know one way to play.” -- Russell Westbrook.
DENVER -- History is always surreal when it’s being made. When you see something that you know you will never see again, it’s hard to really grasp it.
Russell Westbrook made history on Sunday, securing the record for the most triple-doubles in an NBA season with 42, behind a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist performance in a 106-105 victory over the Denver Nuggets. Westbrook hit the winning shot at the buzzer in incredible fashion:
Westbrook surpassed Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 season in which the Big O recorded 41 triple-doubles. Westbrook cleared it with two games to go, in a road win, in a game that meant nothing for OKC’s playoff standings. The Thunder locked the sixth seed earlier this week and will face James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round. Westbrook passed Harden, his biggest presumptive challenger for MVP, with his third 50-point performance of the season
With Westbrook teetering on his final assist needed for the record, the crowd rose to its feet time and time again, a mixture of Nuggets fans desperate for their squad to survive for the playoffs and eager to witness history. Westbrook passed a clean look to Enes Kanter who had the lane ... travel. He found Domantas Sabonis wide open for a pick-and-pop jumper ... no good. The energy was bizarre, frenzied and yet distracting.
Finally, he found, of all players, rookie guard and former D-Leaguer Semaj Christon for a triple. History made.
There was nothing left to play for. The Thunder were locked into the sixth seed. The average of a triple-double for the season was locked. The record for most in a season was secured. Westbrook had nothing left to play for.
But OKC was down. So Westbrook just kept coming. Over and over again. The Oklahoma City Thunder outscored the Nuggets by 13 in the final three minutes. In that span:
“I only know one way to play. I don’t know any other way to play,” Westbrook said after the game on why he kept playing, why he brought that kind of performance at that moment. “When I get on the floor, I try to leave everything I have regardless of seedings, records, time of day, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Maybe this was the cap, the finishing point, on his MVP season. Maybe this was him, desperate to make sure that his history-making night wouldn’t be tarnished by defeat. Maybe he was hyped up on adrenaline and knew Denver couldn’t stop him.
But more than anything, this night showed what Westbrook is made of. The triple-doubles, the 50-point night, the lethal speed, the amazing dunks, the highlight game-winner, they’re all byproducts of what comes first -- his insatiable, unstoppable, unrelenting approach to the game.
The triple-double mark will make the highlight reels, the game-winner lit Twitter on fire. But there was another moment that shows how Westbrook continues to evolve and improve beyond his athletic superiority. The Thunder forced a turnover down four with 27 seconds left. Recognizing the ability to draw a 2-for-1, Westbrook said after the game that he told coach Billy Donovan they could generate a layup. The resulting play got Westbrook to the rack, and after Denver missed its shot as time expired, the Thunder secured the ball with just enough time to draw up Westbrook’s 3-pointer.
There is still time to debate who deserves MVP this season. There is still a story to be told of Westbrook and the Thunder’s season, including that matchup with Houston. Sunday was not the storybook ending for OKC, and it’s unlikely that’s what they’ll get this season. What it was, however, was a game that showcased the best of Russell Westbrook, wrapped in that surreal moment where frenzied anticipation gave way to thrilling accomplishment, and finally, jubilation.
The MVP might be Westbrook. It might not be. But this season will always belong to him, not just for what he has accomplished in averaging a triple-double, breaking what was once thought to be an unbreakable record for most in a season, or for doing so while leading the league in scoring. It will belong to him because of these games, so many shots to win the game, so many moments see where he took over and won the game himself, so many games where he made reality surreal.
He wanted to do amazing things this season, he wanted to win games, he wanted to lead OKC to the playoffs.
And just like he told us back in the fall ...