Where does he find the energy?
Sixty-four games into what is no doubt one of the most staggering seasons in NBA history, that’s the only thing Russell Westbrook has not provided for the Oklahoma City Thunder: an explanation as to how it is humanly possible to carry on like this.
The highlights don’t do Westbrook’s season the justice it deserves, particularly in a season where the battle for the top spot in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder should, and could, very well come down to the final minutes and seconds of the regular season.
Witnessing this one-man storm in the flesh, from ground level, is just about the only way to truly get a grasp on what he’s doing to the competition night after night.
“He’s not human,” said veteran forward Taj Gibson, who, along with Doug McDermott, joined the Thunder at the trade deadline. “I don’t know any other way of describing it.”
During the stretch of a season where we are wondering if overrating crazy numbers (Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden) while underrating the two-way impact of other MVP candidates (Kawhi Leonard and four-time winner LeBron James), a fresh set of eyes might actually help put things in a better perspective.
Gibson said that the morning of Westbrook’s career-high 58 point explosion against the Portland Trail Blazers, a game that marked the Thunder’s fourth straight loss. And Gibson was right: there really is no easy way to describe what Westbrook is doing.
He followed up that career-high scoring night with a much more impressive feat, his 31st triple-double of the season in Thursday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs. In doing so, Westbrook tied Wilt Chamberlain for the second most triple-doubles in a single season behind Oscar Robertson’s 41.
Not even his staunchest critics can poke holes in a performance that included 23 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists and just three turnovers in 35 soul-drenching minutes against the NBA’s top defensive team.
Well, there are folks who will point to his shooting struggles (7-for-21 from the floor, including a 1-for-6 effort from deep), but they’re probably also in the camp that refuses to consider Westbrook a “superstar.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, of course, is not one of those detractors. He had nothing but praise for Westbrook before Thursday’s game.
“It’s astounding,” Popovich said. “I was a big Oscar fan being a kid watching him, when every once in a while you could get an NBA game on TV to watch him. But what this young man is doing every night, I think it’s just an incredible feat. Really, a singularly unique bundle of energy and competitiveness for sure. He’s a good kid. I’m happy for him. He’s fantastic.”
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IMPORTANT NOTE:Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry have been removed from the list due to long-term injury issues that could keep them out of action for the remainder of the regular season.
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Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 2
The Thunder’s four-game losing streak is no more, thanks to Westbrook’s work against the Spurs Thursday night. He tied Wilt Chamberlain for the second most triple-doubles in a season (31) and has Oscar Robertson’s record (41) well within his sights. We’re all still trying to figure out where he finds the energy to go this hard every single night (40.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.0 assists in his last five games).
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
The lingering question about this Rockets team (can Harden count on his supporting cast to help propel a deep playoff run?) remains as we get closer to the finish line of this regular season. Back-to-back losses to the Spurs and Jazz, the latter on their home floor, could be warning signs for “The Beard” and his crew (31.6 points, 10.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds in his last five games).
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Last week: No. 4
Leonard had his MVP moment, if you will, earlier in the week with his masterful work on both ends against Harden and the Rockets. He didn’t need it to stake out his space on this list, where he’s been entrenched among the top five for months. But it never hurts to remind the world that you’re one of two or three players on the planet capable of doing certain things (24.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists in his last five games).
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 3
If this was a contest strictly about the player most valuable to his team in the most literal sense, it’s hard to argue for anyone over LeBron. Just take the Cavaliers’ last two games as a snapshot. They are a +32 in nearly 78 minutes with him on the floor and -45 in just over 18 minutes without him on the floor (31.3 points, 14.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists in his last five games).
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 5
Thomas turned what could have a been a tumultuous situation with Celtics coach Brad Stevens into the fuel he needed to help his team win on the road in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics are the real deal, thanks in large part to their leader and the league’s most lethal fourth-quarter assassin (28.2 points, 5.2 assists, 1.6 rebounds in his last five games).
6. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Last week: No. 6
Wall’s Wizards aren’t just pounding the opposition at the Verizon Center these days. They are doing it on the road as well, collecting shootout wins in Phoenix and Denver in the first two games of their five-game Western Conference road trip that makes a stop tonight in Sacramento (23.2 points, 10.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds in his last five games).
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 7
Things are much more complicated for the reigning, two-time and unanimous Kia MVP without Kevin Durant in the mix. The Warriors will have to rely more and more on Curry to bail them out of tight situations down the stretch of this regular season, a role he’d abdicated to Durant in far too many instances, to some, this season (25.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists in his last five games).
8. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Last week: No. 8
Hayward went whisker-to-whisker with James Harden in an impressive Jazz road win over the Rockets Wednesday, holding his own on the offensive end and drawing the toughest assignment of the night trying to contain Harden on the other end. The days off between that test and Saturday’s game in Oklahoma City couldn’t have come at a better time (18.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists in his last five games).
9. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Last week: No. 9
George and the Pacers continue their strange trip this season, big win in Atlanta Sunday and a season-sweeping blowout of the Pistons Wednesday with a loss at Charlotte sandwiched between them. They are what their record says they are heading into tonight’s Central Division matchup in Milwaukee, a .500 team led by one of the league’s true two-way superstars that is somehow still in search of its true identity (25.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists in his last five games).
10. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Last week: 10
The Grizzlies’ four-game slide, two on the road and now back-to-back losses at home, couldn’t come at a worse time for a team trying to carve out its safe space in a tight Western Conference playoff chase. Conley consistency is what will help the Grizzlies dig out of this slide (25.4 points, 5.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
An inside look from a Western Conference scout at Dion Waiters:
“What can I say? I think there are a bunch of us having to eat a little crow on him after watching the way he’s played for Spo [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra] this season. He’s been flat-out awesome, and not just It’s not that he wasn’t a talented kid. He’s always had the high-level talent but it just never seemed to connect until now. Sometimes a guy just needs the right opportunity at a certain point in his career and the situation right now in Miami was wide open for him to go in there and do what he does best. And there’s no doubt about it, he can score it from all over the place when he’s locked in. I put him in that Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams category of guys that don’t care about who’s in the way when they are on that mission and just go to work. He hasn’t done it as consistently as those guys, but the has that same type of ability when he just blanks out and starts making shots from all over the place. He’s never had an issue with confidence. And thats been on teams with the best guys in the league … LeBron and Kyrie, KD and Russ, he never felt like he should take a backseat to anybody. That’s been the blessing and, to some degree the curse for a guy like him. You have to know how to use that confidence to your advantage without going overboard and losing yourself in that pursuit to prove you belong. All that said, it’s been [Goran] Dragic’s show down there this season. He’s really led them. And Hassan Whiteside has really had a nice season. But the guy that gives them their edge, it’s Waiters.”
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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