OKLAHOMA CITY — With his left leg crossed in front of his right, Russell Westbrook gave a little wave and patted his heart. The game had been paused, right around the nine-minute mark of the third quarter, to acknowledge history. As the public-address announcer tried to yell over a roaring crowd to recognize Westbrook’s 41st triple-double, referee Gary Zielinski had the ball tucked under his left arm, waiting to restart play. Westbrook gave Zielinski a quick nod.
Let’s get this going again.
Andre Roberson inbounded the ball, and with the crowd buzzing, Westbrook cranked a straightaway 3-pointer. All air. A little bit tough to keep concentration after all of that?
“Definitely, man,” Westbrook said with a big smile. “I air-balled a 3 right after it.”
It was all fun for Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday as they stomped the red-hot Milwaukee Bucks 110-79, leading by as many as 39. Westbrook’s teammates celebrated postgame by dumping water on him during his on-court interview, and a lot of the crowd hung around to chant “MVP” as he walked off the floor.
“I do really feel like tonight was a team moment, too,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Obviously Russell was the one that scored and assisted and rebounded, no question, but you have to be part of a team for that to happen. And that was the really great part too. I think Russell was really humbled and the guys were great and the fans were awesome.”
And while the focus inside the locker room was on Westbrook’s remarkable accomplishment, not to be overlooked was the fact the Thunder played one of their most complete games of the season. They overwhelmed the Bucks, showcasing their speed, athleticism and size. Alex Abrines hit 4-of-6 from 3-point range before having to leave with a knee sprain. Enes Kanter was a load on the interior. The scoring attack was refreshingly balanced, a happy medium that’s been difficult for Westbrook and the Thunder to find this season.
“Like I’ve said before,” Westbrook said, “Winning is the most important thing, especially for me and definitely for our team. It was a good win for us.”
The Thunder have made a habit of winning when Westbrook records a triple-double this season — now 32-9 — but they had lost in the last two instances, a tough defeat to the Spurs and an ugly one to the Hornets, both at home. There was an urgency to the way they played Tuesday. Maybe it was because of the proximity to history, or maybe it was the Thunder were in desperate need of a performance. And in those moments this season, Westbrook has often delivered.
“The other part that’s been really positive too is, when that’s happened, our team has won,” Donovan said. “I’m not saying all the time, but clearly he’s impacting the game with his rebounding, assists and scoring. It has helped our team, and I think the record speaks for itself.”
It wasn’t the most dominant Westbrook performance — his 12 points were a season low — but he ran the game for the three quarters he played; he had 13 assists to go with 13 rebounds. The Thunder were supercharged, riding Westbrook’s wave, with the offense rolling and the defense suffocating. The ball popped all over the floor, and highlighted by Roberson’s impressive defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Thunder blew the game open in the second quarter. By the end, it was their largest margin of victory of the season.
“We understand that sometimes when we tend to blow teams out we let our foot off the gas,” Taj Gibson said, “but tonight we wanted to play a full 48 and really crush teams.”
Westbrook has five games left to pass Oscar Robertson’s single-season mark and needs just 16 assists to clinch averaging a triple-double for the season. But the Thunder also have five games to solidify their position in the West, starting on Wednesday in Memphis. With a win there they can secure no worse than the 6-seed. This season has centered on Westbrook and the history he’s chasing, but the Thunder are closing the book on what’s been an impressive bounce-back campaign in the wake of Kevin Durant‘s departure. Still, there are games to be played and a level to reach as they enter the postseason. Westbrook sees the Thunder as a contender, and while that’s a bold thing to believe, if they can bottle the kind of energy and intensity featured on Tuesday, it’s at least a step in that direction.