Last night, while we were all arguing about a black-and-blue dress, Russell Westbrook and a gaggle of tall men who were not Kevin Durant were a half-hour down the road from where the llamas were dodging the cops, playing the Phoenix Suns. If you missed it, or forgot, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost a heartbreaker in overtime, 117-113. Westbrook played like shit. He jacked 38 shots, and missed 26. He jacked 10 three-pointers, and missed nine. He scored 8 points in the first half, and again went ice cold in overtime, eventually short-arming and missing a layup to tie the game in its dying seconds. He finished with 39 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists, and three steals in one of the most awe-inspiring performances any of us has ever seen. Here; treat yourself. You deserve it.
It was his third triple-double of the month—as many as any other player has had all season—and his sixth time going for 35 points in February. This month, he's averaged 30.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 10.2 assists. Durant, the reigning league MVP, has missed six games in February to injury, and in that same damn span, the Thunder are 9-2. Most importantly, after long swaths this season of missing one or both of Westbrook and Durant, they hold the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race. But this is probably my favorite stat:
These numbers I've just tossed at you, though, aren't what I really want to talk about. They're just there to provide context as I explain what exactly it is I saw last night, and what I've been seeing leading up to last night, and how what I've seen is stirring my brain and my body and my soul, right now.
As long as Westbrook and Durant have played with each other, everyone has compared the two teammates because it's an easy, effortless way to fill column inches for people who still measure "columns" by "inches" and will also probably die soon, and because people like to watch and read about other people fighting even or especially when they're not, and because they're two legitimate superstars just hitting their prime who also appear to be complete opposites.
He's been in the league for seven years, and I'm not sure how or why or even if Durant actually exists in nature. He's seven feet tall and moves around the court on roller blades, and seems to play basketball better than everyone without really trying all that hard to play basketball. His mystique is that it always feels like he's cheating us, like he's marking up the stat sheet when you look down to check your phone, or turn to grab your beer, or slip away to hit the head. We're familiar with this kind of star, because across all sports, the best athletes tend to also make the hardest things look the simplest, because they are better quantitatively and qualitatively than you and me and everyone they are competing against.
But you tend to remember everything Westbrook does: every "fuck it" pull-up, every bullrush to the basket, every jaw-dropping change of direction, every time he tries to shatter the actual rim after taking off and flying horizontally through the air before hammer-punching the ball through the hoop, every bucket, every miss, every turnover, every goddamn time he deigns to pass to Dion Waiters. We don't know what to make of him, really. He's unique in that at 6-foot-3 he has more athletic ability than everyone, and also appears to be working visibly harder than everyone. It's feels almost shameful to watch him; this is a man whose scowl at every dead ball or highlight or or clutch play or personal foul feels legitimately angry, whose play is so violent that it verges on the obscene.
Russell Westbrook is chaos incarnate barely contained in a terrestrial vessel. He's Four Loko, but Four Loko back when a single can could still kill a motherfucker. When he errs, it's generally because he's trying to do too much, and things that no human would or should ever try to do. Here's his near miss in overtime last night:
After getting the inbound and knocking a scrub whose name escapes me to the floor while spinning, he sprints to the hoop. When he takes off for the layup, his plant foot lands directly on Markieff Morris's. His ankle rolled, and he still got off the floor and still tried a reverse layup for no reason at all! No one does this. Then Westbrook fell back to the earth, landed, fell, and folded up in agony, and the whole of basketball Twitter gasped and wailed and typed as if we just saw Achilles himself get clapped. Surely, we thought, this couldn't be the end. Could it?
Dude was fine after like two minutes.
What makes Westbrook so great and unique in basketball and in the broader world of sports is that when you watch him, you come away thinking this might be the most competitive athlete since ... Tonya Harding? Consider this year's All-Star Game, when LeBron James was gunning to win MVP from the start. Westbrook, coming off the bench, was similarly gunning to win MVP from the start. Westbrook jacked 28 shots in 26 minutes in a goddamn scrimmage and won the MVP.
No one does this.
But don't take my word for it. Consider this photo, from last year:
Consider this, against New Orleans in the beginning of the month:
And consider this against Phoenix just last night.
He's not here for the bullshit. There is no one more singularly focused than Westbrook on his personal and team achievement. He wants it all: a playoff berth, a championship, an MVP trophy. It doesn't even seem to matter that Oklahoma City had to trade for Enes Kanter because no one on the team outside of Durant can be counted on to ever score in an actual, professional basketball game. He has an injury-ravaged team on his back, and there's literally no one who thinks the Thunder aren't going to make the playoffs. I don't know if there's anything he can't do. My dad is the strongest, toughest, hardest man I know. Russell Westbrook would fuck up my dad!
Right now, Russell Westbrook is the most electrifying and terrifying and valuable player in the league. He started the month with two back-to-back 45-point games. Against Denver a week ago, he had 21 points, 8 boards, and 17 assists in 27 minutes. Last night, with the Suns up three just before overtime, he drove, drew contact, and scored the layup to tie and extend the game. Imagine what's gonna happen when Durant comes back. Imagine what's gonna happen next year if he ends up on, like, the Lakers passing it to Julius Randle and Robert fucking Sacre. Imagine if he just doesn't stop playing like this for the next eight years.
This doesn't really feel sustainable, because few humans can do what Russell Westbrook is doing, at all, and few people can do this consistently before God or physics or whatever steps in and their bodies break. But these are all questions for the future that don't really matter yet. All that matters is that he is out here doing all of this magnificent shit right now, and he is playing again tonight.
Photo Credit: Associated Press