Russell Westbrook is the only real NBA MVP choice

The Thunder were down by 14 points to the Magic halfway through the fourth quarter. They had been down 21 in the third. This was also their third game in four nights.

They lost by 12 against the Rockets three days before, when Russell Westbrook scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and at one point brought his team to within nine after the Thunder had been down by 20-plus. They beat the Mavericks a day later after being down by 13 points with 3:30 left in the game, and Westbrook scored 16 of the Thunder’s last 18 points. In the fourth quarter overtime against the Magic on Wednesday night, he scored 26 points.

Westbrook’s game-tying shot was an otherwise reckless transition three over two defenders with mere seconds left on the clock. But he was hot. And no one else on that team deserved the glory or burden of that shot more than him. The basket put him at 50 points. He would go on to have 57 total, the most points ever scored while recording a triple-double.

There’s an entry in Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks where he writes: "Atlas was permitted the opinion that he was at liberty, if he wished, to drop the Earth and creep away; but this opinion was all that he was permitted."

The Thunder are 31-7 when Westbrook has a triple-double. They have only won 43 games total. What he does — these consistently ridiculous performances that have to be reduced and boxed into the category of “triple-double” to be more easily understood — is wholly out of necessity.

The Thunder needed Westbrook to have a once-in-a-generation season, otherwise they would be lost. They needed him to score 19 points in the fourth, or they would have lost to the Magic. They needed him to be their be-all and end-all, because that is the only way that they can survive, much less thrive.

Inflated rebound numbers be damned — this is not a case of stats padding. Westbrook could very well do less, but he would do so knowing that his team would more likely lose. He could satisfy the critics and preserve himself by lessening his burden of carrying the team, but he would be purposely putting the Thunder in a vulnerable position. For someone who wants to win every game, that is not an option, not even in overtime during his third game in four days.

Westbrook does not have empty triple-doubles, he has “I will drag us as far as I can” triple-doubles.
This effort against the Magic makes the swipe that the Rockets took at his season seem even sillier.

There is nothing bad that can be said about James Harden, and there’s no need to admonish him in favor of Westbrook. He is having a fantastic season of his own, and if he wins MVP, he would deserve it. Harden has done wonders for the Rockets while raising his play to incredible and unforeseen levels. Anyone who besmirches someone to praise another lacks a strong argument, and is probably just a hater.

But we’ve gotten to a point in the MVP argument where Westbrook is disregarded because he’s not as efficient as Harden, because he’s not the playmaker in a Mike D'Antoni offense, because of a small percentage difference — 3 percent — in uncontested rebounds.

We’re also at a point where certain stats about how each team’s offense performs without the two MVP candidates on the court, and how much each player raises his team’s play when they do come in the game, are being ignored for devious reasons — where advanced statistics are no longer being used to illuminate, but rather to wash away wonder and push an agenda of expertise.

When a player is averaging a triple-double for the season — something that has only been done once before, in a league that has had the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James — and the feat is dismissed as empty numbers, then there’s a problem. When an argument against Westbrook is that the Thunder — who should realistically be chasing the eighth or seventh seed, and not the fourth — are not one of the top two teams in the league, then there’s a huge problem. And that problem is not Russell Westbrook.

Just as you do not judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, Westbrook should not be judged by the standards of Harden. Just as Harden should not be judged on the merits of Kawhi Leonard. And Leonard on LeBron James. They are not the same kinds of players, and they are not doing the same things. Harden is leading a resurgent team that is designed to take high quality shots, and he’s doing so at an unprecedented level.

Westbrook is not perfect, and he could certainly be more efficient, but he is also being asked to be an entire offense on his own. He is being asked to be a savior. It’s a role that fits him as much as being a genius facilitator fits Harden. The savior role indulges Westbrook’s ego and defiant attitude. He’s also one of the few players who can handle a team’s failures squarely on his shoulders. The same reason why he takes transition threes over two defenders is the same reason he is perfect for this Thunder team: Westbrook fantastically believes he can do it all. He’s so confident that he can, that the idea and fear of failure doesn’t seem to register for him.

The theme of the Thunder this season has been a simple and urgent plea: “Westbrook, please save us.” That’s how it was against the Rockets, the Mavericks, and the Magic. When other players would scoff at having to exhaust himself every game just to give his team a chance at winning, Westbrook embraces the challenge. He entered this situation without Durant, without Serge Ibaka, with only an outside chance of making the playoffs — whether down 20-plus points, 13 points with three minutes left, or 14 points in the fourth — and asked why not? Why not the Thunder? And especially why not him?

Westbrook is not James Harden. He doesn’t have to be.
He is Russell Westbrook, and he is doing things this season that should only be possible in Japanese anime. There is no need to do mental and analytical gymnastics to reason yourself out of the wonder of his season. He has scored the most points ever in a triple-double, and he has gone perfect from the field in another one. He has snatched victory away from other teams by sheer will, as he did against the Mavericks and Magic, and against the Grizzlies when he scored 15 points with 2:35 left to play. He has done that and so much more, so that every Thunder game is a must-watch just to see what he comes up with next.

That is his case for MVP. The only reason that the Thunder are in the playoffs — why they’re even a subject of discussion — is that Westbrook refused to let them fall apart. If he should win MVP, and he deserves it as much as Harden does, it is because he’s willing and capable of having a once in a lifetime season — full of absurd numbers, shattered records, and unimaginable comebacks — to push himself and his team as far as they’ll go. That is something to be rewarded, not disparaged.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Shootaround (March 30) -- 'Unbelievable' competitive drive keeps Russell Westbrook trucking

No. 1: Westbrook works magic on Magic -- How does one man bring his team back from 22 points down in the second quarter and out of a 14-point hole with just over six minutes left in regulation time? Well, you start by ringing up the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history. But in clinching a playoff berth for the Thunder, Russell Westbrook also told Brett Dawson of The Oklahoman he just wants it more than everybody else:

“You just got to want it more than other people,” Westbrook said after the game. “I think for me, every night I don’t think about getting tired. I just go out and keep going, keep going.”

In that final six-plus minutes of regulation against the Magic, Westbrook scored 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, pacing the Thunder to a 23-9 surge to tie the game.

It was Westbrook who tied the game. Of course it was.

He did it on a 31-foot 3-pointer that knotted the score at 102-102. It came with 7.1 seconds to play, just as his game-winning shot in Dallas had two nights before.

“He never believes that he’s ever out of it or we’re ever out of it, and he plays with an incredible competitive spirit,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “He just plays with unbelievable spirit all the time. He’s got a huge heart, he’s a huge competitor and he finds ways to make things happen.”

* * *

No. 2: Warriors feeling good about themselves again -- The good news for the Warriors is that they’re back leading the NBA parade after their stunning climb out of a huge hole in San Antonio. The bad news for the rest of the NBA is that they have now won nine in a row and could be getting Kevin Durant back in the lineup soon. Our Shaun Powell says the Warriors are brimming with confidence at the right time:

So, to recap: Warriors load up by beating the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the West for their ninth straight win, and get an encouraging update both medically and visually regarding Durant, who’ll be re-checked in a week and is expected to play the season’s final two or three games. Meanwhile: The rest of the league just took a deep breath.
“Our guys are tough, confident and pretty good,” said Kerr.

No. 3: Writing on Knicks’ wall not pretty -- Once upon a time, the Knicks were a “super team” in waiting. Once upon a time, they were full of hope and optimism. That was back in training camp. Now after being eliminated from playoff contention for a fourth straight season following a miserable home loss to the Heat, star forward Carmelo Anthony senses the end is near for him in New York, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“I see the writing on the wall,’’ Anthony said. “I see what they’re trying to do. It’s me accepting that. I think that’s what puts me at peace: Me knowing and understanding how things work. ’’

It was the first time Anthony was held scoreless in the first half of a game this season and the first time since 2012, in games he’s played at least five minutes.

In Detroit earlier this month, Anthony took just nine shots, and said afterward his selectiveness was a function of the reemphasized triangle.

Anthony has a no-trade clause but keeps giving hints he’s close to waiving it.

In a loaded response, Anthony said about his new role, “It’s difficult. It’s hard to change a player’s game in the ninth inning. I am who I am. I got here all these years playing the way I’ve been playing. It’s hard to take that step back. It’s challenging. I think it’s for the greater good of everybody on this team.”

But later when asked again about his two-shot, scoreless half, Anthony said, “It doesn’t do me any good, doesn’t do the team any good.’’

* * *

No. 4: Nurkic gives Blazers hope and a chance -- Back in the middle of the season, the Blazers' chances of getting back to the playoffs were hovering between slim and none. But that’s before they pulled the trigger on the deal that put Jusuf Nurkic in the middle of the lineup and began their climb back toward the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. John Gonzalez of The Ringer tells the tale:

As recently as mid-February, that’s exactly what appeared would happen. The Blazers’ playoff aspirations looked so grim back then that they might as well have changed the name to RIP City. (At the time, FiveThirtyEight ballparked their chances to make the playoffs at 19 percent.) That’s when the Blazers made a move, one that’s obvious in its importance now but seemed less significant at the time. When Portland traded Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic, he had fallen so far out of favor in Denver that the Nuggets included a first-round pick to make the deal happen. No reasonable person could have predicted that Nurkic would then transform himself into a stat-sheet stuffer and a catalyst for the Blazers’ postseason push.

“For whatever reason, our system didn’t work for him,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if it was him or our system, but somehow, some way, it didn’t work.”

Nelson said he was happy for Nurkic, and he added that the trade has “worked out well for both teams.” That’s true to an extent. But especially after Tuesday evening, it looks a bit better for one side than the other.

 * * *

No. 5: Rookie Brogdon 'not a rookie' in many eyes -- When you’re making your picks for Rookie of the Year and are stuck trying to determine if Joel Embiid’s 31 games are enough played to earn him the award, don’t forget Malcolm Brogdon of Milwaukee. The point guard made all of the key plays down the stretch, including the game-clinching bucket to seal the Bucks’ win at Boston, and as the Greek Freak told Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it’s not surprising anymore:

"As I said in the beginning of the year, he's not a rookie in my eyes," Giannis Antetokounmpo said. "He's so mature; he's always calm. He's going to keep getting better, but we need him to do those plays down the stretch.”

Suddenly Bucks opponents have to worry about Brogdon creating at the end of games, just as they are focusing on Antetokounmpo and Middleton.

"He was great on both ends," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "He made plays, found guys, came up with some big shots. It just showed his composure throughout that stretch in the fourth.

"It shows the trust his teammates and coaches have to let him have the ball in his hands instead of Khris or Giannis.”

Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who recruited Brogdon when Stevens was coaching at Butler, was not surprised at the way the Bucks rookie played.

"He's not a rookie. He's not a rookie," Stevens said. "And I say that with complete respect to him. Like that guy; he knows how to play.

"He was a tremendous college player who was an ultimate winner, and he has just picked up right where he left off.”

* * *

Colin Cowherd: Russell Westbrook’s triple-double stats are overrated

Russell Westbrook’s pursuit of becoming the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season has him in the running for his first league MVP. The perennial All-Star notched his latest do-everything stat line Wednesday night, when he scored 57 points – the most by a player with a triple-double in NBA history – 13 rebounds and 11 assists in the Thunder’s thrilling overtime win.

Despite the eye-popping numbers, not everyone is on board with Westbrook getting MVP honors, especially with James Harden currently second in points per game and first in assists. Colin Cowherd debated Chris Broussard about why he thinks Westbrook’s triple-doubles are mostly style and little substance Thursday  on “The Herd”.

Doing damage against 'garbage-pile teams'
“Can I show you a stat? This is so definitive about Russell Westbrook. Nobody disputes that he’s great. I’m not arguing that, I get everything here.

"But my knock is if you look at what he’s doing it against, the teams that are .500 or better – and I’m not saying these are all the Warriors, these are just teams that aren’t crap. Against the teams that are .500 or better, he shoots 39 percent from the floor. He’s making a lot of his on garbage-pile teams.”

They've beaten good teams, though
“But hold on. They have beaten every elite team in the league at least once. They’ve beaten the Clippers twice. They’ve beaten Utah three times. … The other night he had the triple-double against Houston. They’ve beaten everybody but Golden State.”

“What do you do with this stat? He’s last in the league on guarding his three-point shooter. It’s called cherry-picking.”

The triple-doubles have led to wins
“No, no. He’s going the other way to get the defensive rebound. … This is the thing: They’re 31-7 when he gets a triple-double. So if you show me if his teammates really aren’t going for rebounds, they’re just boxing out so he can get his stats, if he’s not guarding guys, you’re not going to be 31-7 if you’re playing cheap basketball.”

'Goosing' his numbers
“I think he’s the most athletic guy in the league. Like people think I don’t like John Wall. I’ve said to you 10 times, ‘Wall’s having a hell of a year.’ I’d put Wall in the MVP discussion. What I’m saying is they’re goosing him about three rebounds a night to get the triple-double. If the game was clean he’d go 31 [points], 10 [assists] and seven [rebounds].”

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