Westbrook has free reign to dominate without Durant

Kevin Durant's departure to Golden State has given Russell Westbrook the opportunity -- and responsibility -- to produce at historic levels

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The only subject that Russell Westbrook cares to discuss less than the triple-doubles he’s collecting is Kevin Durant. When pressed for his feelings on doing an Oscar Robertson on the league, he’s terse, his tone is even somewhat dismissive. He’s, well, pure Westbrook.

“I get satisfaction from winning,” he said.

OK, point made. But that doesn’t make him any different from 400 or so other players. Everyone’s here to win.

What Westbrook is trying to avoid is the impression that he’s a stat monster who’s favoring his history-chasing feats ahead of the bottom line, and anyone who knows Westbrook will tell you that’s hardly the case. His competitive personality (read: angry) and pedal-to-the-floor pace are telltale signs that Russ does whatever it takes, on a nightly basis, to grind out a victory, regardless of who and where he’s playing.

But with regard to the triple-doubles, if there’s a tiny part of him that appreciates the feat and is doing cartwheels privately about it, Westbrook should thank Durant for that. Because Durant’s departure last summer made this all possible. We wouldn’t be witnessing one of the best all-around efforts in our lifetime had Durant re-signed with Oklahoma City and confined Westbrook to co-star status.

By now you know the numbers:

* Six straight triple-doubles

* Eleven for the season (as many as the rest of the NBA combined)

* Amassing that figure in just in 22 games (fastest since The Big O in 1961-62)

* Achieving triple-doubles by the third quarter in four of his last five games

He is, of course, averaging a triple-double for the season — 31 points, 10.9 rebounds, 11.3 assists — and no player has done that this deep into the season since Oscar.

“It goes without saying that he’s doing things we haven’t seen done in a long, long time,” said OKC coach Billy Donovan. “Russell is getting a lot of credit for that, as he should.”

“It is mind blowing. He’s a tremendous player who can do so many different things and play at such a high energy level. He’s carrying that team.”

Hawks guard and ex-teammate Thabo Sefolosha

Westbrook is chasing Oscar because he has the talent, obviously, but also because he must in order for OKC to remain one of the elite teams in the West. So much of OKC’s success and universe depends on Westbrook placing his fingerprints all over the floor. For the first time in his career, he doesn’t have an MVP-caliber teammate around to help tug the freight. Therefore, in an off-hand way, Durant has made it possible for Westbrook to be unleashed.

The basketball universe knew Westbrook was a special player on his own, even with Durant as a teammate. But going solo and elevating the Thunder in this singular way seems to emphasize what everyone suspected, that Westbrook is suddenly on pace to be among the all-time greats.

At the very least, he’s putting together an all-time great season.

“It is mind blowing,” said Thabo Sefelosha, a former OKC teammate who drew the short straw and had to guard Westbrook the other night for the Hawks. “He’s a tremendous player who can do so many different things and play at such a high energy level. Incredible competitor, plays to win. He’s everywhere, he plays the right way, takes the shot when it’s there. He’s carrying that team.”

We saw this from Westbrook before, two years ago when Durant suffered from a foot injury and Westbrook had the stage to himself. But that was a small sample size. Durant eventually returned. This time, however, he’s not coming back. It’s all about Russ, and no doubt the proud competitor inside Westbrook is thrilled at the chance to accept the challenge of tugging a team without Durant.

There are two parts of his game that deserve an examination: passing and rebounding. The rebounding part is impressive given that Westbrook isn’t an especially big guard, and also because he’s more likely to be on the perimeter and further away from the rim that most big men. Yet he’s averaging more rebounds (10.9) than Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins and Tristan Thompson.

Russ being Russ, he has a very expansive explanation for this: “I just go get the ball.”

The passing part is also unique, but not because, as a point guard, it’s his duty to find teammates. For much of his career, Westbrook has heard nit-picking complaints about his tendency to take more shots than Durant. He was always annoyed by that, and partly for good reason. One: Westbrook has a natural tendency to look for his own shot when he’s open and also when he knows he can take his man in a one-on-one situation. Two: Westbrook’s teammates will be the first to tell you he isn’t an unselfish player. Even Durant seldom if ever registered a complaint, and if it wasn’t a big deal to Durant, then why would anyone else have a problem with it?

“Russell is all about his teammates,” said Donovan. “He has taken it upon himself to get them involved and to help put them in position for shots.”

The development of Westbrook sans Durant goes beyond triple-doubles, though. Westbrook is now the dominant voice in the locker room and has taken it upon himself to be even more of a lead-by-example type.

If he stays healthy, you figure the odds of matching Robertson and averaging a triple-double for the season appear decent. Scoring won’t be the issue, and maybe not rebounding because with the exception of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, Westbrook isn’t fighting teammates on the glass. It’ll depend on his teammates’ ability to keep making shots on his passes.

If so, this would all but clinch the MVP award for Westbrook, regardless of where the Thunder finish in the standings (assuming they don’t go completely in the tank). And if that happens, what are the odds that Westbrook thanks Durant the way Durant famously singled out Westbrook after winning the award?

Because again, Westbrook isn’t chasing Oscar if Durant is in OKC.

Here’s what’s weird: When Westbrook played against his old coach, Scott Brooks, the two shared a long embrace and exchanged words after the game. When Westbrook played against Sefelosha, again, there was a warm post-game hug complete with smiles and friendly words.

After he played the Warriors and against Durant, the best teammate he ever had, the guy who angrily defended Westbrook and put Mark Cuban in his place last spring after the Mavericks owner questioned Westbrook’s worth as a franchise player, Westbrook had … nothing. Not a handshake, an acknowledgement or even a half-hearted hug. Maybe Westbrook is saving it for many years from now, when both will have their jerseys retired in OKC.

He might not agree with it, and certainly won’t discuss it. But this earnest pursuit of Oscar’s triple-double season is coming with an assist from the ex-teammate who shall not be mentioned in Westbrook’s company.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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