INDIANAPOLIS -- On a night he dropped a career-high 54 points, plus nine rebounds and eight assists in 41 dizzying, unrelenting minutes, Russell Westbrook walked to the bench with 30 seconds left, done for the night.
Knowing the pending hurricane of anger that was about to happen, the Oklahoma City Thunder's end-of-the-bench players cleared out the final three seats. Westbrook grabbed the seat of a chair, violently flipping it as it recoiled back into position just in time as he sat down. With as much fury and anger that was boiling inside him, it's somewhat of a shock he didn't just pick it up break it over his leg, Bo Jackson style.
Veteran Steve Novak, maybe not knowing any better because he's kind of new, walked over and rubbed Westbrook's head. The Thunder point guard sat entirely still, never acknowledging anyone, elbows on his knees, staring into oblivion ahead, fuming with rage. The Thunder had lost to the Indiana Pacers 116-104, further damaging any remaining playoff hopes, and Westbrook had picked up his 16th technical, earning a one-game suspension for Monday's must-win matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers if the tech is not rescinded.
One person was able to get his attention, though. A Pacers fan a few rows behind the Thunder's bench had enough guts to needle Westbrook.
"Hey Westbrook! On the bench and in ninth place where you belong!" he yelled. A few Thunder staffers turned and looked, knowing what a bad idea that was. Westbrook stayed still, stayed looking forward, and then couldn't help himself. He turned and glared at the fan with the fire of 10,000 suns before turning to an arena security guard.
"I wanna cuss him out, but I'll let you handle it," he said. The security guard went and talked to the fan, telling him there was only 20 seconds left and to chill out. Westbrook went back into his world of furious isolation.
Few players take losses as personally as Westbrook. Because few put as much into each game, only to get nothing out of it. The fury he plays with is at the heart of the player he is -- an ultra-competitive on-court ball of fury that empties the tank every single game. And with the Thunder pushed to the brink and in desperate need of a win, Westbrook tried. He tried.
"Russell never, never plays half-speed," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He kept us in this game tonight. We didn't have a lot of good things offensively. He kept us in the game with his heart and competitive spirit, and I thought he was terrific."
It was obvious from the outset what Westbrook had in mind. He scored 22 in the first quarter, had 29 at halftime and wasn't about to hesitate to think better of a shot attempt at any point. Thing is, this game isn't some outlier, the number of points and shots notwithstanding. This is what you get from Westbrook every night. He didn't change his mindset. He just played the game and the numbers happened.
"I do that every night, man," Westbrook said when asked if he was trying to do more.
The 43 shot attempts in the box score are jarring, though. (Never mind that he made 21 of them, which is a very solid 49 percent.) Westbrook took almost half his team's total shots, and scored more than half their total points.
"You can look at the shots, and he probably took a handful too many," Brooks said. "A lot of them were attacks and layups and at the very end, we were making comebacks. Twice we made comebacks because of his aggressive play. Russell leaves everything on the floor. He's not a perfect player, nor is anybody in this league, but he plays with perfect energy every night, and that's what we look at."
Westbrook is the most polarizing star in the league for exactly what happened on Sunday. He scored 54 and completely played his heart out, but his team lost a game in which he took 43 shots.
"We didn't really mind he was the only guy going," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He scored 29 in the first half that we were winning. If he's going to take 43 shots, he's going to score a lot of points and nobody else on the court will get into a rhythm."
Was Westbrook good, bad or somewhere in between? So much of that hinges on your preexisting view of him. If you appreciate his remarkable competitive spirit and undying nightly tenacity, then you look at this game as another example of him giving you everything you'd want in a star. If you see him as a ball-hog that freezes out teammates whether from selfishness or mistrust, then this is another example of him giving you plenty of fodder to work with.
"I don't really give a damn what nobody thinks, to tell you the truth, man," Westbrook said. "I really don't care. Every night I go out and compete harder than anybody else in this league and I'm proud of coming out [that way] and my teammates don't have a problem with it. I'm good with that."
You can blame the loss on Westbrook. But then of course you'd also be wrong. He might've taken 43 shots, but he also didn't take a single one away from Kevin Durant. The Thunder are in the kind of position where they need to be carried, a mentally exhausted team that's finally crumbling from a season marked with incredible adversity. Enter Westbrook, who is as fearless as anybody in the game, and ready to take on any challenge.
It might be misguided energy, it might be the Kobe syndrome of not always knowing when too much is too much. But that's the thing with Westbrook, if you want all the great -- the triple-doubles, the electric rim-attacks, the non-stop rampaging -- you also have to accept the few things he's going to take in exchange: The bad shots, the bad decisions, the bad blow-ups.
But what Westbrook gave on Sunday is everything you can ask for. We glorify that kind of mindset from players, demanding they be aggressive and assertive. We beg them to take over games and put the team on their backs. Westbrook tried to do all of that, and more. It just wasn't enough.