OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook stood at the free throw line, wearing a clear mask, and a shower of MVP chants poured down from Chesapeake Energy Arena. Kevin Durant stood on the Oklahoma City Thunder bench, wearing a gray suit, and held out an arm, asking the crowd for more.
The reigning MVP has heard those chants plenty himself. He knows what they mean and what it takes to earn them, and he was more than obliged to enjoy them for his supernova teammate.
Rewind six days, when Westbrook walked off the floor in Portland, Oregon, with a quarter-sized dent in his face after posting a third straight triple-double. Four days ago, he had surgery to fix the fracture. He sat one game and returned on Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers. Wearing a protective shield on his face, plus a headband to hold it in place, Westbrook didn't only pick up where he left off, but went to another level. Maybe the mask helped him tap into his full superhero form.
In 42 minutes, Westbrook had a career-high 49 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and 10 assists for a fourth consecutive triple-double, something that hasn't been accomplished since Michael Jordan did it in 1989.
"For those of you, including myself, that thought Russell might need a couple of games to get used to wearing the mask," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, "we were wrong."
Yes, it was against the 13-win 76ers, and yes, it took overtime, as the Thunder survived a barrage of 3s from Jason Richardson and Isaiah Canaan for a 123-118 victory. But forget all of that. Westbrook's star has exploded into a sun, and he's eclipsing the entire league, bulldozing his way into the MVP conversation, whether he was invited or not.
The only thing that seemed to remotely bother Westbrook on Wednesday was the mask. He was constantly adjusting it, trying to keep it from sliding around his swollen face. Even after an absurd, 94-foot, coast-to-coast, two-handed dunk in the first quarter that sparked a 20-2 run, Westbrook landed and immediately reached for the mask.
"I mean, it was weird, obviously, [I] kept wiping it and it was a total, big process of trying to keep everything from not falling and all this stuff," he said. "But that's not going to stop me. My job is to come out there and lead my team."
Even Sixers coach Brett Brown couldn't help but get caught up in the show. Late in the fourth quarter, Westbrook pulled down an offensive rebound, putting it back over two big men, then followed that up with a steal on the other end and a jumper seconds later. Brown walked over to the scorer's table and sat down, shaking his head with a small smile.
"You walk a line of frustration and one where you become a fan," Brown said. "You look at that and scratch your head. He delivers there, and you blink, and he's stealing a kick-ahead pass. So incredibly gifted and so competitive. It's a fantastic combination."
The Thunder have desperately needed a hero this season. It's been their most trying since moving to Oklahoma City, as they've dealt with a flurry of injuries that started in training camp. Durant has missed 34 of 61 games with four different injuries. Westbrook himself has missed 15, 14 because of a fracture in his hand in November and one from the dented face last week. They've been in an unexpected battle for a mere playoff spot, something that has become a rite of passage for them.
But as they try to transition from playoff contention back into the championship kind, Westbrook has assumed the burden. Like Durant a season ago in January while he was sidelined, Westbrook has taken over the responsibility of lifting his team to a higher place. He says he's just playing his game. The face-denting performances say otherwise.
"My mindset has been the same since I got in the league," Westbrook said. "It's to come out, play hard every night and give it everything I have, regardless of what's going on."
It's a change in role for the Thunder, with Westbrook stepping into the spotlight. It's taken the freedom inadvertently created by Durant's absence, but the world is bearing witness to the force of will that is Russell Westbrook. For the past five seasons, it's been Durant who has stood at the free throw line with MVP chants ringing out. Westbrook has happily stood alongside, accepting the general thought that he was somehow a lesser talent.
But it's become blatantly obvious to those still uninitiated that the two Thunder stars are actually equals. Even though he was wearing a mask, Westbrook is not Batman. But he's no Robin, either. He's his own brand of star, neither alpha nor second banana. He's a single-minded basketball player who imposes himself on a game with whatever means are necessary to win.
"He's playing incredible," Nick Collison said. "We don't want to take it for granted, but we expect him to play well and we know what he is capable of. He's just so engaged, and he's so into the game when he's competing in every phase. The numbers come with that."
Where Brooks sees the most growth from Westbrook, though, is in his maturity and leadership. The Thunder are working to integrate a pile of new pieces, with one of their bedrock locker room voices, Kendrick Perkins, traded away. Westbrook has risen to the challenge to leave behind his emotional outbursts and visible frustrations with teammates to take on a new mentality to make his team better.
"It's hard for me to say this because he had 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists," Brooks said, "but his best job tonight was when he kept his composure throughout the game when we were down 16 and he was encouraging his teammates. They need that. We all need that. And I thought he did a good job of really locking in with his leadership."
The way Westbrook has played, it's spawned mindless conversation about if the Thunder are really his team, if he's better than Durant, if he's been underestimated as a mere sidekick. That noise doesn't matter to Westbrook. Or Durant. It's their team. And as Durant illustrated with a simple gesture during Westbrook's moment at the free throw line, he's enjoying the show just like everyone else.