Russell Westbrook needed one more assist for another triple-double in his ruthless campaign across the NBA. So he drove the lane and tried to thread a pass to Joffrey Lauvergne, his teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the ball bobbled loose for a turnover and time soon ran out — on the first half.
Westbrook’s greatest achievement this season might be the way in which he has turned the extraordinary into the mundane. It happened again at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. Drama no longer comes in the form of whether he can assemble another triple-double (double digits in three statistical categories), but whether he can pull off the feat in a single half.
His gaudy numbers hardly register with teammates anymore. It is just his way of doing business.
“Outside of you guys talking about it, nobody talks about it,” said coach Billy Donovan, who detailed the countless other postgame topics of conversation that take precedence, ranging from areas of potential improvement to Oklahoma City’s next opponent.
During the Thunder’s 112-103 victory over the New York Knicks, Westbrook checked the necessary boxes for his third straight triple-double — and his eighth of the season — when he connected with Victor Oladipo for a layup 79 seconds into the third quarter. But he kept going, of course, shedding and demoralizing defenders on the way to 27 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists.
Nineteen games into his season, Westbrook, 28, is averaging 30.9 points, 11.3 assists and 10.4 rebounds. He has 45 career triple-doubles, which ties him with LeBron James for sixth on the career list behind other luminaries like Oscar Robertson (181), Magic Johnson (138) and Jason Kidd (107), according to Basketball Reference.
Donovan said he thought it was conceivable that Westbrook, a 6-foot-3 point guard, could become the first player since Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season. Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists for the Cincinnati Royals in 1961-62.
Westbrook said he had met Robertson.
“I’m pretty sure he was a tough one to guard,” Westbrook said.
Consider, though, that Robertson played in a more up-tempo era, with his team averaging 126.2 possessions a game. Robertson had far more opportunities to clutter the box score than Westbrook does with the Thunder, who, by comparison, average a pedestrian 98.7 possessions a game.
In any case, some of Westbrook’s production this season must be seen as a function of Kevin Durant’s absence. With Durant now plying his trade for the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder funnel everything through Westbrook. But while he is attempting more field goals than ever — 23.7 a game — he is also averaging career highs in assists and rebounds.
“He’s going to put up numbers because of his ability and because of how hard he plays and his gifts,” Donovan said. “But he’s doing a lot of the things that the stat sheet doesn’t measure. I know everybody is focused on that, and rightfully so. It’s historic what he’s doing. But there’s also another side to it, too — that he’s a pretty complete point guard.”
Donovan cited the extra work that Westbrook has been doing with teammates — in quiet moments at practice, on the bench during games.
None of this is to suggest that anyone on the Thunder, who improved their record to 11-8 Monday night, is oblivious to the season that Westbrook is constructing. Donovan, for one, described Westbrook’s triple-doubles as “remarkable” and “amazing.”
But they are all merely the result of his full-throttle approach to the game. As trite as it sounds, the numbers appear to be an afterthought.
“I don’t really care, honestly,” Westbrook said. “I like to win and compete at a high level. I do the same thing every year.”
Because of his dazzling drives and nifty passes, Westbrook’s rebounding is often overshadowed. He is not a large man by NBA standards. But entering Wednesday’s games, Westbrook ranked 12th in the league in rebounding. The 11 players ahead of him were centers and power forwards.
So how is he doing it? Westbrook indicated that his rebounding totals had likely increased because of the departures of teammates like Durant and Serge Ibaka, who both filled the lane last season. There were only so many rebounds to go around.
But Westbrook has always been an excellent rebounder, relying on quickness and guile rather than strength and size. No one in the league collects long rebounds with greater frequency. He almost sounded offended that people were only now appreciating this part of his game.
Donovan credited Westbrook’s work ethic.
“If you look at his career from high school through college to the NBA, every single year he’s gotten better,” Donovan said. “And I think that’s a great tribute to him and his commitment to being the best that he can be.”
It should be noted that triple-doubles are generally rare and difficult to achieve. Some perspective may be useful. The Knicks’ Derrick Rose has one triple-double in his career, which he delivered during the 2010-11 season when he was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and Carmelo Anthony has two. He nearly had his third last season but came up one assist short when Jose Calderon misfired on a late jumper for the Knicks.
Anthony had been aware of the stakes. “I was hoping Jose made that shot,” Anthony said at the time.
The point is that triple-doubles, even for stars of Anthony’s magnitude, are accomplishments to be savored. And then there is Westbrook, who is on a pace for 35 of them this season. That would move him past Larry Bird (59) for fifth on the career list and pull him close to Wilt Chamberlain’s 78.
“You’ve just got to love the way the guy plays,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said. “He lays it out there every night. There’s games I’m watching, and he’s got sweat coming down, and he’s got stuff drooling out of his mouth. He’s just so intense.”
Hornacek is a fellow member of the triple-double club. During his 14-year NBA career as a 6-foot-3 point guard (sound familiar?), Hornacek had two of them.
“It wasn’t very often I got 10 rebounds,” he said.
Hornacek made those remarks about an hour before the game, along with his stated plan/hope/dream of slowing Westbrook in transition.
Westbrook did not touch the ball on the Thunder’s opening possession, which turned out to be an empty trip — and perhaps that was a lesson learned. He quickly involved himself. He corralled a defensive rebound. He found Domantas Sabonis, one of his many young teammates, for a 3-pointer. He rocketed upcourt for a fast-break layup.
Westbrook finished the first half with 14 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists to give the Thunder a 58-55 lead, and he proved relentless in giving them the win.
“It’s easy to talk about on paper,” Hornacek said, “and then you have to go guard the guy.”
Is it sustainable? Donovan thinks so. He plans to monitor Westbrook’s minutes as the season wears on, he said, but he will never ask him to play anything other than his style.
“He’s going to be who he is, and I want him to be who he is,” Donovan said. “I’m not going to sit here and say: ‘Slow down right now. Take it easy. Rest.'”
Westbrook seems unfamiliar with the concept. Enjoy the show.
Benjamin Hoffman contributed reporting.