OKLAHOMA CITY -- Wearing a tie-dyed teal hat and a pair of glasses directly off your grandma's nightstand, Russell Westbrook was asked following the Oklahoma City Thunder's 108-104 win over the Toronto Raptors if it even crosses his mind when he posts a triple-double anymore.
"It crosses my mind when we win," Westbrook said. "That's the most important thing."
It was Westbrook's seventh triple-double of the season -- his fifth in six games -- and he notched it before the fourth quarter had even started. It almost seemed like a footnote to his dominant game, a statistical formality simply for bookkeeping purposes. Such is Russell Westbrook right now.
But in those previous four triple-doubles, the punctuation to a run of unhinged offensive domination that has produced one of the greatest months in NBA history, the Thunder went just 2-2. Their latest game in Chicago, a rare non-triple-double night for Westbrook, the Thunder stalled in crunch time and watched a double-digit lead slip away in the fourth. He still had 43-8-7, but there were a few plays that got away, a few defensive stumbles, a few wrong offensive choices. Westbrook has been simply outrageous, yet the Thunder have struggled to finish tight games.
As the Thunder tussle with the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns for the West's final playoff spot, with Kevin Durant out, Westbrook has assumed the responsibility of carrying the Thunder. There's no dismissing the production because it's simply insane. But the win-loss column hasn't aligned with the stats in the way you'd expect, which made Sunday's performance actually enjoyable for Westbrook.
The box score popped in all sorts of directions for Westbrook on Sunday -- 30 points, 11 rebounds, 17 assists, four steals and nine turnovers -- but his influence on a game is simply unmistakable. It's not the raw numbers he puts up or even the ugly possessions he gives away with a bad shot or careless turnovers; it's the omnipresent will to win that beams off him. Westbrook's relentless spirit has become his trademark, but with a more centered demeanor and comfort in leadership, he's now transferring that to teammates.
"We've had a lot of success with him leading," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He's averaged seven or eight assists the last few years. He's doing a good job of finding guys, and guys are making shots for him. But as his game continues to develop, it slows down. He has a speed and has an aggression that we need for him to play with, but he is still able to see while he's playing at the speed -- more so now than in the last two or three years."
That's always been a perceived flaw to Westbrook: He can stuff a stat sheet on his own, but as a leader and true playmaker, he doesn't influence the game enough by making teammates better. It was somehow seen that even his assists were selfish, like they were his hunting down a pass that led directly to a bucket for the sake of a tally in the box score instead of making the "correct" basketball play. Incorrect as those perceptions might have been, Westbrook can't shake a lot of the noise that follows him. Even with monster stat lines come addenda on shot attempts or turnovers or one bad offensive decision in a game with 100 possessions.
But the way Westbrook has elevated himself isn't all that shocking. He's an irresistible talent who has a combination of skill, size, strength and athleticism unlike anything we've ever really seen. But what is notable is Westbrook has taken his teammates to a higher place with him. He's turned Enes Kanter (21 points on 9-of-14 shooting, 12 rebounds and four assists) into a destructive pick-and-roll big man. He's propped Serge Ibaka (21 points on 10-of-16 shooting) up with countless open looks. Westbrook is running the game, controlling the offense like a puppet and keeping opposing defenses from having any sensible way to cope with the Thunder offense.
"I mean, what else can I say about it?" Kanter said. "I have no words. He has been unbelievable, he is helping his teammates, he is scoring the ball, and he is rebounding. He has just been really good."
Of Kanter's nine buckets, Westbrook assisted five. Of Ibaka's 10, Westbrook assisted eight. That's 13 of his 17 assists to the Thunder's new, offensively dynamic frontline, giving Westbrook options when he comes off a screen ready to attack downhill. Part of it is a deeper trust, but that's been built from the continual maturation of Westbrook's game. Evidence of that is, despite seven first-half turnovers and nine overall, Westbrook maintained composure and made critical, crunch-time plays. He remained engaged defensively and came up with four steals and a crucial block on Jonas Valanciunas with five minutes remaining.
"I thought Russell had one of those games where the thing we don't talk about a lot is his defense," Brooks said.
Westbrook's clear investment in every game is what helps separate him from other good players. He's prepared and committed to the 48 minutes in front of him, ready to play with whatever kind of reckless abandon is necessary. Kyle Lowry is known for his tenacity, but he couldn't match Westbrook's level.
"If you find somebody who has slowed him down, let me know," DeMar DeRozan said. "You've got to give him credit. Their best player is out, and he's stepping up when they're fighting for a playoff spot."