Kia Race To The MVP Ladder
Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Not even Russell Westbrook's coach can slow him down
Billy Donovan knows putting any kind of restraint on his hard-charging superstar guard is a fool's errand
Formulating a plan to slow down Russell Westbrook is a task that has no doubt contributed to the sleep deprivation of coaches from 29 other NBA teams this season.
After all, what can you do to stymie a physical force of nature who has boundless energy and the will to give up every ounce of his being to beat you?
It’s a problem Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan is glad to he doesn’t to worry about.
“If I had to guard him?” Donovan said when asked how he’d try to guard Westbrook, “I’d probably get to a local church and say a few prayers and get some help from the good Lord.”
Jokes aside, Donovan has a job that’s arguably just as tough as the coaches trying to stop Westbrook this season. He has the unenviable task of trying to manage the minutes for the league’s most relentless machine, the man who sits atop the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder this week again, as he has all season.
In an era where 20-year-olds are on minute restrictions and maintenance plans, Westbrook doesn’t like to miss a second of the action. Westbrook is averaging 35.7 minutes per game this season and has logged 37.2 over the course of the Thunder’s last 10 games. He’d play more, of course, if Donovan allowed it.
“He’s on a rotation, minute-wise,” Donovan said, “but for him, when he’s out there he’s going to be who he is. He’s going full tilt and full throttle, that’s just who he is. I don’t want to take that away from him because that’s what makes him special. I’m not so sure anybody could, because that’s just the way he’s going to play this game. So I have great admiration and respect for the fact that every night he comes out and gives everything he has physically, emotionally and mentally to the game and to his team.”
“He loves competing. You know there are sometimes when guys look at competition as being a threat to themselves. I think he loves the fact that he gets to go out there and compete because he loves the opportunity to go out there to lean and grow and get better. “
Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan, on Russell Westbrook
You should expect the usual maximum effort from Westbrook tonight, when his Thunder host old friend and former teammate James Harden and the Houston Rockets (8 ET, ESPN). They’ve known each other since their teenage years in Southern California, each one measuring his game against the other in a friendly but ultra-competitive environment.
It’s that competitive edge, the one that fueled Westbrook’s rise from relatively unheralded high school prospect to NBA superstar, that shines through to this day.
“He loves competition,” Donovan said. “There are certain guys that maybe don’t. But he loves competition. He loves competing. You know there are sometimes when guys look at competition as being a threat to themselves. I think he loves the fact that he gets to go out there and compete because he loves the opportunity to go out there to lean and grow and get better. One of the things I love about him is he’s always trying to evolve and grow and get better. And competition allows you to evolve and get better and I think that’s why he thrives in it so much and enjoys it so much.”
That’s why the triple-doubles, six straight and counting, and all of the other attention coming Westbrook’s way is background noise for the man in the middle of the storm.
None of this is surprising.
“I just take it one game at a time, man, honestly,” Westbrook said before ringing up that sixth straight triple-double against Atlanta earlier this week. “I just try to go out and compete at a high level every single night.”
Now, to this week’s rankings …
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
(Last week: No. 1)
Westbrook has literally morphed into a running, jumping and slashing human triple-double. He’s got six straight ones as tonight’s game against former teammate James Harden and the Houston Rockets looms. Get your popcorn ready for what Harden and Russell are getting ready to do (27.8 points, 14.8 rebounds, 12.8 assists in his last five games).
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
(Last week: No. 2)
Harden played a season-low 30 minutes in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday, a welcome respite for a player who is averaging nearly 37 minutes a night and toting a monster load for an upstart Rockets team. He’ll be fresh for tonight’s trip to Oklahoma City to face Russell Westbrook and Co. (27.4 points, 8.6 assists, 8.0 rebounds in his last five games).
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
(Last week: No. 3)
Durant and the Warriors rolled rolled to an early lead in Utah Thursday night but had to hold on late against a game (and injury-ravaged) Jazz team. After two sub-standard shooting nights, Durant is still shooting a far and away career-best .549 overall. He’s playing as efficiently as he ever has (23.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 blocks in his last five games).
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
(Last week: No. 4)
When you plow through the competition the way LeBron and the Cavaliers have on the regular this season, we’ll allow for a little fun (the water bottle challenge in New York Wednesday) at the office. The Heat will get his focused best tonight at Quicken Loans Arena (24.8 points, 7.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds in his last five games).
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
(Last week: No. 5)
The best defensive player in the league could contend for a scoring title someday based on what we’re seeing from Leonard this season. He has six 30-plus point games this season after doing it just four times in his career prior to this season (24.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals in his last five games).
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
(Last week: No. 6)
The two-time Kia MVP’s greatest quality is not his sweet shooting stroke or his wicked handle, but his humility. He was more excited than anyone watching Klay Thompson go off for 60 points in a win over Indiana and has done everything he can to allow Kevin Durant to find his groove(23.4 points, 5.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 3.0 steals in his last five games).
7. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
(Last week: No. 7)
The Bulls snapped a three-game losing streak and the Spurs’ perfect road record Thursday night without a vintage performance from Butler, who struggled to a 4-for-14 shooting performance. Don’t get it twisted, though: Butler has been a consistent force for coach Fred Holberg’s crew all season (24.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.4 blocks in his last five games).
8. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
(Last week: T-10)
The Hornets needed every bit of energy Walker could muster in the fourth quarter (14 points) in Wednesday’s win over Detroit. He didn’t get an All-Star nod last season, but that shouldn’t be an issue this time around. Not with the way he’s carrying the Hornets (21.4 points, 5.0 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals in his last five games).
9. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
(Last week: No. 8)
The Pelicans have issues to work through after four straight losses, including Thursday night’s stunner to the Sixers at the Smoothie King Center. Luckily for coach Alvin Gentry, Davis is not one of those issues. He continues to excel in spite of the Pelicans’ struggles (30.6 points, 13.0 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 2.4 assists in his last five games).
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
(Last week: T-10)
“The Greek Freak” is living up to his nickname each and every night. He picked up his second triple-double (15 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, four blocks and two steals) in a win over Portland as he’s celebrating his birthday week (he’s just 22) in style (22.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 3.0 steals, 2.8 blocks in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers; Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
An inside look from a Western Conference scout at Zach LaVine:
“He’s not just a dunker anymore. I know that’s what he’s known for, that’s what people have come to expect from him, the highlight stuff. But if you watch the way he’s playing this season under Thibs, he’s rounding his game out. He can knock down [3-pointers], mid-range jumpers and slash with the best of them. He’s put in the work, you can see it. He’s still a work in progress on the defensive end. But all of those youngsters in Minnesota are getting a taste of it for the first time. For a guy who didn’t start in college and was a huge question mark on Draft night, I think the strides he’s made so far are pretty impressive. People love to talk about [Karl-Anthony] Towns and [Andrew] Wiggins, and rightfully so, but they’ve got three guys [that] score 20 a night, and you rarely hear them talking about Zach. He’s going to be as good as he wants to be if he keeps working on his game the way he has.”
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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