DENVER – This is how Russell Westbrook was meant to make history and break the Big O’s record.
Nitpick some of the rebounds if you want to be a nerd and a party-pooper, but Westbrook making triple-doubles routine this season has not been about stat-chasing. It has been about necessity, a remarkable display of a superstar relentlessly doing what his team needed of him to win.
His performance Sunday prompted a pair of standing ovations from the Pepsi Center crowd and epitomized what Westbrook's season has been about. It was a classic display of all-around dominance -- 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, capped by a 36-foot game winner at the buzzer -- combined with a refusal to let the Oklahoma City Thunder lose.
With the Thunder locked into the West's sixth seed, Westbrook could have coasted after driving and dishing to Semaj Christon for a wide-open corner 3-pointer with 4:17 remaining. That clinched the triple-doubles record, giving Westbrook 42 this season, one more than Oscar Robertson had in 1961-62. He could have basked in the standing ovation and been satisfied with his accomplishment.
But that's not how Westbrook rolls. He's as ruthless a competitor as there is in the NBA.
All Westbrook did after that was score the Thunder's final 15 points to finish off Oklahoma City's rally from a deficit that was 13 points before Christon's 3, extinguishing the Nuggets' hopes of making the playoffs.
"I only know one way to play, honestly," said Westbrook, who has three 50-plus-point triple-doubles this season, more than any other player in NBA history has in a career. "I don't know any other way to play. When I get on the floor, I try to leave everything I have, regardless of seedings, records, the time of day, whatever. It doesn't matter to me. Basketball is basketball, and I try to go out there and leave it all on the floor."
Nobody should have been surprised that Westbrook pulled out the win. This is what Westbrook does. He has pulled off similar one-man shows down the stretch in mounting major comebacks for road wins over the Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic in the past month.
This was the first game-winning buzzer-beater of Westbrook's career, but he leads the league with four go-ahead field goals in the final 10 seconds of games this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Westbrook's 247 points in the clutch -- final five minutes, score within five points -- are four shy of LeBron James' total in 2007-08 for the most in a season by any player over the last 20 years. Westbrook's clutch plus-minus (plus-85) ranks third in the NBA.
To put it simply, Westbrook has consistently carried the Thunder to wins in the season after the franchise was rocked by Kevin Durant's departure. Combine that with his historic production -- a league-leading 31.9 points plus 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game -- and he is clearly the top MVP candidate. At least if you listen to the coach whose team got torched by Westbrook on Sunday.
"Russell Westbrook to be the only player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double -- no disrespect to their team, but I think James Harden has more help over there [in Houston]," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before the game. "Earlier in the year, people said he can't keep this up for 82 games, and he has. What he's done is really something that you see once in a lifetime, so my vote would go to Russell Westbrook."
No player in the league carries a bigger burden than Westbrook, who has to be historically productive to give the Thunder a decent chance to win.
Oklahoma City is an outstanding team when Westbrook gets a triple-double, going 33-9 in those games. The Thunder are 13-25 when he doesn't.
That's why it would have been a shame if Westbrook broke Robertson's record during Friday night's lopsided loss to the Phoenix Suns. Whether Westbrook wants to admit it or not, the Suns' accusations that he was hunting assists in the fourth quarter in pursuit of a triple-double were accurate. It was the exception to the rule for Russ, the rare occasion when padding stats became his priority.
The beauty of Westbrook's individual brilliance is that it boosts his team. He appreciates making history and the appreciation he's feeling from fans around the league, but he craves winning much more than individual recognition.
Westbrook would have been well within his rights to lobby for MVP votes Sunday, as Harden did after recording his 21st triple-double of the season in the Rockets' win over the Sacramento Kings. But Westbrook didn't swing at a softball question about whether his heart-pounding, record-setting performance put the finishing touches on his MVP case.
"I'm not sure, man," Westbrook said. "To piggyback on what I just said, every night I go out and compete on a high level. I take pride in that, taking care of my body, different things of that nature, to go out there and play and make sure that my team has a chance to win the game."
That's what Westbrook's season, one of the best the NBA has ever seen, has been all about.