Missing history by one board, Russell Westbrook awaits his next chance

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Has there ever been a more spectacular, impressive, disappointing performance in NBA history?

In a critical road game with significant playoff-seeding implications, Russell Westbrook put up 45 points on a sizzling shooting night, capping it with yet another clutch scoring flurry to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 103-100 victory Wednesday night over the Memphis Grizzlies. He dished out 10 assists, including one for a Doug McDermott 3-pointer that accounted for the only Thunder points that weren't by Westbrook in the heart-pounding final five minutes at FedEx Forum. He even had a season-high five steals.

But he finished with only nine rebounds on a night when he could have broken the Big O's 55-year-old record for triple-doubles in a season? C'mon, man!

"It'd be nice if he'd grab the ball!" Thunder coach Billy Donovan cracked, referring to a rebound that Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter stole from Westbrook with 1.2 seconds remaining, tipping it to Andrew Harrison for a 3 that pulled Memphis to within a point. "It bounced off his hand. It was right there in his lap, right?"

Even Westbrook, a man not exactly known for yukking it up with the media, found humor in the focus being on a rebound he didn't get immediately after such a phenomenal individual performance that guaranteed that the Thunder would finish ahead of the Grizzlies, no worse than sixth in the Western Conference. He chuckled when asked about the rebound that got away, costing him what would have been his 42nd triple-double of the season, one more than Oscar Robertson recorded in 1961-62.

"I mean, I think that people obviously come to see that," said Westbrook, who is now only six assists shy of guaranteeing that he'll join Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season. "It was a lot of people here to see that as well, but it happens like that. We've got a lot of games left. I'm happy we got the win. That was the most important part to me."

Westbrook was in perfect position to get the rebound if Harrison missed. But it was a swish by the Grizzlies' fill-in starter at point guard, a 28.9 percent 3-point shooter this season. And Westbrook was well aware at the time what that rebound would have meant.

"The crowd was screaming it, so I heard it," said Westbrook, who has finished a rebound shy of a triple-double twice and an assist shy five times this season. "I heard it."

If Westbrook had his way, he would have had one more shot at rebound No. 10 before the buzzer sounded. After being fouled with eight-tenths of a tick left, he tried to miss his second free throw -- not to pad his numbers, but to minimize Memphis' odds of getting a final shot. But as Westbrook started to dart toward the basket, hoping to tip the ball away, his high-arcing shot went through the net.

"See, that’s what type of night it is! I make that one," Westbrook said, laughing at his luck.

It was the kind of night when Westbrook felt as if he couldn't miss. He matched his career high with eight 3-pointers made on 13 attempts, finishing 14-of-25 from the field.

And Westbrook was money when it mattered most. He hit a deep 3 over Harrison to give the Thunder the lead with 2:00 remaining. His next shot was even more breathtaking and cold-blooded: a pull-up dagger 3 in the face of Tony Allen, perhaps the best perimeter defender of the past decade, to put Oklahoma City up four with 14 seconds left.

Surprised? You shouldn't be. Westbrook has been at his best during winning time all season long, which ranks right below the whole triple-double deal among the reasons that he has one heck of a case to be named MVP.

Westbrook's 241 points in the clutch -- the final five minutes of a game when the score is within five points -- is by far the most in the NBA this season. In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, he's only 10 points shy of 2007-08 LeBron James for the most clutch points scored by any player in a season over the past 20 years. And the 45-33 Thunder are plus-80 with Westbrook on the floor in those situations.

In other words, the Thunder are sitting in the No. 6-seed position, almost certainly headed for a first-round meeting with the fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets, in large part because Westbrook keeps willing them to wins.

Of course, his box-score-stuffing consistency has been a huge help, too. Oklahoma City is 32-9 when Westbrook records a triple-double -- and 13-24 when he doesn't. The Thunder wouldn't be a playoff team without Westbrook putting together one of the most statistically remarkable seasons ever seen in the sport.

That historic next triple-double will almost certainly happen during this four-game trip, most likely Friday night in Phoenix, considering the fact that Westbrook has triple-doubles in 11 of the past 14 games and the tanking Suns aren't much of an obstacle. The basketball world will certainly be watching in anticipation.

"I really mean this: No one [on the Thunder] really talks about all this stuff," Donovan said. "I get when I come out here and people want to talk about it because it is historic, but as it relates to our team, we're just trying to do the things we have to do so we can play well. Because once the regular season ends and the playoffs start, it won't be a topic of conversation anymore, so there's only about six more days of this.

"And I think it's all positive -- and I say that in the most respectful way -- because what Oscar Robertson has meant to the game and what he's done for the game so long ago and what he did during that season to average a triple-double, I think everybody felt that would never be done again in the history of the game. The fact that he's doing it and all of us can share in it and be a part of it, it is really, really special. But we also understand too that we all have a job to do."

Westbrook's job is to do it all, and he keeps delivering in sensational fashion, even with fans hoping to see history leave the arena disappointed.

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Russell Westbrook falls 1 rebound short of record 42nd triple-double

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook fell a rebound short of history Wednesday night in an otherwise spectacular performance.

Westbrook, who was vying for an NBA-record 42nd triple-double of the season, carried the Thunder to a 103-100 win over the Memphis Grizzlies with 45 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, making a career-high eight 3-pointers in the process.

The point guard said he couldn't help but be aware late in the game that he was a rebound away from sole possession of the mark Oscar Robertson set in the 1961-62 season.

"The crowd was screaming it, so yeah, I heard it," Westbrook said.

The last time the Thunder played the Grizzlies, on Feb. 3, they ended the game on a 15-0 run, with Westbrook scoring all 15 points.

Wednesday night's game was no less thrilling, as Westbrook neared the NBA single-season record for triple-doubles one night after tying the mark that Robertson had held for 55 years.

Westbrook's next game is at Phoenix on Friday. He is averaging 41.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 13.7 assists in three games against the Suns this season.

Oklahoma City solidified its hold on the Western Conference's sixth seed with Wednesday's win, taking a 3½-game lead over the Grizzlies. And to Westbrook, that's what mattered.

"I'm happy to get the win," he said. "I think that's important, especially for us to get ready for the playoffs."

Memphis coach David Fizdale saluted the Thunder star, after a quick joke.

"We held him from getting a triple-double, so take that, Russell Westbrook," Fizdale said with a laugh. Then he changed his tune.

"He's lightning," Fizdale said. "He's putting his fingertips all over the NBA right now, as well as the history books."

Westbrook has maintained a triple-double average since Nov. 29, never dropping below 10 in points, rebounds and assists since.

His season has been full of history, with him running up two streaks of seven consecutive triple-doubles, second only to Wilt Chamberlain's streak of nine. Westbrook sits fourth all time in career triple-doubles at 78, tied with Chamberlain. He has had seven 40-point triple-doubles and two 50-point triple-doubles.

Westbrook is also headed for his second scoring title, leading the league by averaging 31.8 points per game -- the highest scoring mark of his career. He also has career-high marks in rebounding (10.7) and assists (10.4).


Russell Westbrook didn't get his historic triple-double vs. Memphis, but what he did was way better

Russell Westbrook’s historic 2016-17 season has been discussed largely in terms of his statistics. That’s perfectly understandable not surprising, because the Oklahoma City Thunder is putting up triple-double numbers we have never seen. He entered Wednesday night’s game at the Memphis Grizzlies needing just one more triple-double to pass Oscar Robertson for the single-season record, 16 more assists to clinch a triple-double average for the season, and two straight triple-doubles to match Wilt Chamberlain’s record of nine in a row. These stats are mind-boggling and do not even encompass the totality of Westbrook’s record-breaking achievements.

Russell Westbrook’s historic 2016-17 season has been discussed largely in terms of his statistics. That’s perfectly understandable not surprising, because the Oklahoma City Thunder is putting up triple-double numbers we have never seen. He entered Wednesday night’s game at the Memphis Grizzlies needing just one more triple-double to pass Oscar Robertson for the single-season record, 16 more assists to clinch a triple-double average for the season, and two straight triple-doubles to match Wilt Chamberlain’s record of nine in a row. These stats are mind-boggling and do not even encompass the totality of Westbrook’s record-breaking achievements.

Of course, Westbrook wasn’t exactly lacking statistically. OKC’s do-everything guard put up an efficient 45 points (14-of-25 FG, 8-of-13 3FG, 9-of-12 FT), 10 assists, nine rebounds, and five steals in 38 minutes. His eight triples matched a career high, and just one of his seven turnovers came in a tight fourth quarter.

With that statistical recitation out of the way, let’s move on to what made Westbrook’s night so thrilling. Apart from falling one rebound short of the triple-double record, Westbrook grabbed everyone’s attention by completing taking over the game. When he reentered with 9:33 remaining in regulation, the Thunder led 82-79. Two Grizzlies three-pointers turned that into a three-point deficit after a little more than a minute, but from that point on Westbrook scored or assisted on all but five of OKC’s final 24 points and everything after a Doug McDermott three that regained the lead with 5:45 left.

That stretch included three huge plays in the final 90 seconds — a mazing dribble to find McDermott for a tie-breaking three-pointer late in the shot clock, a dagger three-pointer with 14 seconds left, and the game-cinching steal on the next possession. Westbrook also made two free throws with fractions of a second left to put his finishing touches on the final score.

As usual, the results weren’t half as exciting as the way Westbrook went about his business. No player seems to feed off his own chaotic style like the Thunder superstar, and the great plays he made were arguably more impressive because of what things looked like when he failed. His two late three-pointers sandwiched a truly terrible fadeaway mid-range jumper that went off the side of the backboard, and with several minutes left it looked as if Westbrook was just as likely to win it for OKC as he was to go down in a blaze of ill-advised fouls 93 feet from the basket.

Basketball fans are used to seeing Westbrook shoot on every possession and run at opposing ballhandlers for unlikely steals in the final possessions, but on Wednesday he seemed to do it on every possession of the last nine minutes. There is no precedent for this style in recent NBA history, and trying to sum it up in a few paragraphs and a stat line feels woefully inadequate. The sheer amount of activity is astounding and exhausting for the viewer, let alone the players on the floor. Westbrook has been accused of hunting triple-doubles in several games this season, and there’s certainly some truth to the claim. Much more often than not, though, his ridiculous stat lines feel more like byproducts of the way he plays than the goal. He logs triple-doubles because he has a pathological need to be around the ball.

I don’t know if Russell Westbrook will be Most Valuable Player and don’t especially care. No matter what happens in award voting before the playoffs, he will be remembered by those who saw him as the most dominant player of the 2016-17 season. His place on an awards list means far less than the shock and awe of the experience itself.

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