We’ve been lucky here in Chicago because we’ve probably enjoyed the best of these superstar matchups ever in NBA history, Michael vs Doc, Michael vs Magic, Michael vs Isiah, Michael vs Dominique; and later Michael and Clyde. Then Michael not exactly pitted against Barkley or Malone, but matching and then surpassing them. No sport provides the dramatic stage for the individual confrontation like the NBA. Batter vs pitcher? Better make it a line drive through the box because someone’s dunking in your face in the NBA.
We haven’t seen this sort of thing since Derrick Rose’s MVP season; not since maybe Rose and Wall, Rose and Kyrie, Rose trying to dunk over Dwight Howard.
But get ready; here’s comes a potentially great one Monday in the United Center:
Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder on the undercard.
Westbrook and Jimmy, the main event!
“We know Russ isn’t getting into fatigue,” Dwyane Wade was saying after Saturday’s Bulls huge comeback win over the Toronto Raptors, also obviously enchanted about the possibilities. “That guy has an unbelievable motor.
“That guy over there is not giving in either,” Wade added, gesturing toward Jimmy Butler’s locker to his right in the Bulls enclave. “That’s going to be a great game, great atmosphere. Russell is a show everyone is coming to see and Jimmy Butler is turning into that.”
Westbrook has been the Greatest Show on Hardwood this season in the NBA, the first player to truly threaten Oscar Robertson’s believed untouchable record of averaging a triple double for a season. And not with cheap stats. Westbrook, like Robertson did, is averaging more than 30 points per game.
Westbrook is averaging an astonishing 31.4 points to lead the NBA, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists. Last month he tied Michael Jordan for the second longest ever run of triple doubles with seven straight. Of course, Oscar in total stats through his first five seasons in the NBA averaged a triple double, though he officially did so only in his second season.
It will be difficult for Westbrook to maintain that pace, but if it’s possible anymore, it’s likely only he could accomplish that. No one in the game plays with the relentless manic fury that Westbrook does. Westbrook in the open court is not as physically imposing as LeBron James, but perhaps just as unstoppable the way he attacks the basket like an accelerating race car.
Westbrook also has developed a good three-point shot. He leads the NBA in scoring by a huge margin over Anthony Davis, he’s second to James Harden in assists and 11th in the league in rebounds. The next closest guard is James Harden at 22nd.
Westbrook has scored at least 40 points four times in his last 11 games, had four games this season with 17 rebounds and had 22 assists in a game. In his last two games, Westbrook has made a combined 15 three pointers with eight threes and 49 points last Thursday against Harden. Westbrook clearly loves the matchups and competition. He also had 45 points against Isaiah Thomas and 42 against Davis.
But it's more how Westbrook does it with a relentless assault on the defense, an impassioned defiance and bubbling rage as if trying to thwart him is an insult.
Bring on Jimmy, who is on quite a run of his own. It’s not quite Westbrook yet, but brilliant, nonetheless, in its forceful impact as the Bulls have won three straight, the last two over the two top teams in the Eastern Conference.
Butler, coming off 42 points Saturday, is averaging 25.6 points, 10th in the NBA, 6.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists. And lately Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has given Butler more point guard responsibilities to put his mark on the game. Butler is listed game time decision for Monday after staying home from morning practice with a cold.
“He’s really playing with the ball in his hands a lot now,” Hoiberg acknowledged Saturday. “It’s something he didn’t do a lot of; we brought him off screens, getting a live catch, pick and roll situations. But he’s just pretty much straight up our point guard for a lot of our games right now; he’s obviously been phenomenal.”
Butler has scored at least 40 points in three of the last six games as the Bulls have won five of seven to get back above .500 at 19-18. Butler also is third behind Westbrook and Harden in free throws made and attempted per game. Butler is at 9.8 attempted. Westbrook leads at 10.6 per game. The basket ducks when they are coming.
The Thunder is 22-16, and perhaps the biggest what if team in NBA history.
Imagine that in 2012 when the Thunder was in the NBA Finals, it featured Westbrook with Harden and Kevin Durant. Durant left last summer as a free agent to Golden State, enabling Westbrook to grab the NBA spotlight away from Stephen Curry. Harden was traded to apparently avoid losing him in free agency. The Thunder have only Steven Adams from that trade.
Perhaps it was inevitable. Maybe the three could not have coexisted or made any sort of comparable impact. But it was one of the great combinations of talent that was prematurely dissolved.
So now Westbrook without the other two high scorers has been left to control the Thunder’s destiny. He looks to pass more now than when he played with Durant since they mostly took turns and watched one another like Butler and Rose did last season. But Westbrook also has been left to pull along a limited roster, which is why the Thunder is hanging onto seventh in the Western Conference. They should easily make the playoff since they lead eighth place Portland by six games.
But it raises questions about the league Most Valuable Player.
Butler understands that as well with the Bulls one game above. 500.
Asked about whether he should be considered in the MVP discussion—Chicago fans have been chanting MVP for Butler—Butler pointed to the team record.
There have been a few exceptions with the record, but basically if your team isn’t in the top four in your conference you don’t have much chance, at least historically, of being considered for the MVP award.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won in 1975-76 when the Lakers were 40-42. But the Lakers finished fourth in the West that season. Bob Pettit won the first year the award was given in 1955-56 when his St. Louis Hawks were 33-39. But that was an eight-team league and his team was runnerup in the West. When Bob McAdoo won in 1974-75, his Buffalo Braves finished third in the East with 49 wins. In recent decades, the voting has clearly tilted toward players on teams with at least 50 wins and among the top two or three in their conference.
Though the top teams don't offer the slam dunk choices like before. Curry and Durant divide the choices, and neither has been as consistently dominant as before. LeBron has been taking games off and deferring to Irving and Love more. Perhaps Harden with the surprise Houston Rockets. The Clippers have wobbled some with Blake Griffin out. It's not such an obvious choice among the elite teams anymore.
Can statistical achievements and impact on your team be enough?
Westbrook and Butler can produce that case. But what perhaps makes this matchup among the most special and unique is Butler also likely will defend Westbrook. Westbrook probably won’t defend Butler. But Butler like perhaps only Kawhi Leonard is the team’s top offensive and defensive option.
That also presents a conundrum for the Bulls. Do you allow Butler to defend Westbrook with his full court, racing frenzy? When Butler also had to do it against Leonard, it limited him to two of his lower scoring games of the season, both below 20 points. Though the Bulls split with the Spurs. And as Butler always says, it’s only about winning the game.
Westbrook and Butler also have differing styles.
Westbrook at about 6-3 and 200 pounds is flash, with apologies to Wade. No one in the NBA combines the speed and power in scoring. Westbrook is a Usain Bolt of lightning, even more remarkable given he’s had multiple meniscus surgeries. Butler at 6-7 and about 235 pounds plays with unique power perhaps second only to James in overwhelming defenders. He also has an improving step back shooting game that has proven reliable in pressure situations. Like with Westbrook, they’ll rebound well above their height and range.
These games are the stuff of the regular season. Westbrook and Durant; Westbrook and Harden; Davis and DeMarcus Cousins; LeBron and Durant, Kyrie and Steph. Kemba and Wall?
Now it’s Jimmy and Russ, and it’s prime ticket.
“He’s a hell of a player,” agreed Butler about Westbrook. “He’s phenomenal at all aspects of the game; he’s going to be a force for somebody in this locker room.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be me,” Butler then added with a smile, craning his head above the rapt reporters, certainly no coaches in sight to demur. “Hopefully so. I want to battle him like I battle against everyone else.”
Bring in on. We can’t wait.