Even without a triple-double, Westbrook's winning plays make the difference

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Steven Adams didn't have to think hard about reflecting on Russell Westbrook's triple-double streak ending at seven on Sunday in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 99-96 win over the Boston Celtics.

"Useless," he said. "Only seven?"

Yep, only seven for Westbrook, who finishes tied with Michael Jordan for the longest run of triple-doubles since 1989, and two short of Wilt Chamberlain who had nine straight in 1968. It was the assists that got him, of which he only had six to go along with 37 points and 12 rebounds. Hard to fault him, though, considering the Thunder shot just 3-of-21 from 3-point range, and he made two of them. All six of Westbrook's assists set up baskets made within eight feet.

The streak in some ways overshadowed what Westbrook was really doing, leading the Thunder out of a low point and to a higher place. Before the streak started, the Thunder had lost seven of nine, spoiling a 6-1 start to fall to 8-8. They were dropping excruciatingly close games, getting beat on game winners by Serge Ibaka and Nick Young, while also not showing up for games they were favored to win. It was only November, but it felt like the Thunder's season was starting to unravel.

With 36 points, 10 rebounds and 17 assists in a stunning comeback overtime win against the Denver Nuggets, Westbrook started a streak that lasted 16 days, and one in which the Thunder went 6-1 to stabilize their season. And within it, he made his teammates better, as the Thunder showed their first promising signs of improvement and development as they forge a new identity around Westbrook as the central figure.

On Sunday, the run ended, but the Thunder still won. And Westbrook was at the heart of it all anyway, scoring 23 in the second half and 13 in the fourth quarter, which included the eventual game winner, a driving lefty layup with 30.6 seconds left.

"Honestly, I'm just happy we won tonight, man, that's the most important thing," Westbrook said of reflecting on the streak. "Me as a player, I always try to look forward. Maybe at the end of the season I can talk about it, but as of right now, my job is to move forward."

A triple-double is basketball's version of hitting for the cycle, ticking three statistical boxes that illustrate you played an awesome game in more than one category. But in the win against the Celtics, it was the plays that don't include a number next to them that made the difference. Westbrook tipping out a miss that led to a critical extra possession. Westbrook forcing a jump ball with Avery Bradley after his go-ahead layup. And Westbrook cleverly winning the jump ball by tipping it forward to Semaj Christon, which eventually resulted in a sealing Jerami Grant dunk.

Westbrook has repeated game by game that winning is the only priority and no individual stat line matters to him. Pregame, he was even asked about his MVP candidacy, which he quickly dismissed, saying the only thing he cares about is a championship. Whether or not he really means it isn't the point. When he's on the floor, it's pretty clear what his mind is on, and Sunday's game is evidence of it.

"I always take the same mindset every night. It doesn't change anything I do," Westbrook said. "I always come out and compete at a high level every night, streak or no streak. A winning streak is more important to me, and tonight we got a win."

The thing mentioned throughout the streak has been Westbrook's example and leadership. His teammates rallied around him in the summer when he signed his extension with the Thunder and embraced his historical run as something of a flash point of an early-season turnaround. Some of his teammates wanted him to triple-double into perpetuity because they loved the recognition it was bringing him. Others were less concerned with the actual numbers and more existential about what Westbrook provides on a nightly basis.

"I'm not really into them. I don't really care," Adams said of Westbrook's triple-doubles. "It's more so his energy and his leadership. And then as a dude, he's just a really good guy. That's all as a team we expect, and he comes and shows regardless of what the stat sheet says or whatever, that he's just a good dude and makes everyone around him better. Top lad. Top lad."

The streak may be over, but Westbrook is still after history. He's still averaging a triple-double 24 games into the season, the furthest anyone has been into the season with one since Oscar Robertson in 1963-64. He still has recorded a triple-double in half the Thunder's games, a ridiculous pace that puts him on track for the most in a single season (41 by Robertson in 1961-62).

But to him and his teammates, all of that is window dressing to get where they're trying go. And the plays Westbrook made in the closing minutes to escape the Celtics are the kinds of things they remained most impressed by.

"I think Russell understands and sees that certainly getting those seven straight games is remarkable," coach Billy Donovan said, "but I don't think tonight is any less remarkable of what he did."