OKLAHOMA CITY — He said he didn’t have to do more. He said he just had to be himself. He said he just had to play his game.
But those things mean something different for other people. For Russell Westbrook, he only knows how to do more. Being himself and playing his game means seeing what kind of limits he can push next.
With the Oklahoma City Thunder returning to the darkened days of playing without Kevin Durant as he rests a strained hamstring for a week or so, they had the good scheduling fortune to take on the winless Philadelphia 76ers in their first game without their star forward. It wasn’t a pretty, emphatic performance by any stretch as the Thunder grinded out a 102-85 win Friday, but it was one primarily influenced by Westbrook, who in 35 minutes put together another triple-double, which included a career-high 17 rebounds to go along with 21 points and 11 assists.
Again, in case you missed it: That’s point guard Russell Westbrook with a 21-17-11 line.
“He’s a very, very rare guy,” OKC coach Billy Donovan said, “because in my opinion, if he never took a shot, he could still dominate a game. He can rebound, he can assist it, he can defend, he can do anything.”
It was Westbrook’s second triple-double of the season, and second consecutive. Dating to last season’s triple-double bonanza — when he piled up 10 in the final three months of the season with Durant out of the lineup — that’s now 12 triple-doubles Westbrook has produced in his past 43 games. That’s a pace of 23 for a full season. In the non-Wilt or Oscar division — they were the triple-double gods — the most any player has had was 17, by Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan had a season with 15. The most LeBron James has had in a campaign was seven.
“Beast mode,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said of Westbrook. “That’s what he does. He plays hard. He plays every game like it’s his last. We expect that from him. We know how hard he’s going to go out there and play, and when he rebounds like that, it gets everybody going, too.”
Westbrook has always rebounded abnormally well for a guard, and most of that is because of his relentless never-stop nature. But he actually has a reason now for getting more aggressive on the defensive glass, seeing it as a catalyst to creating more easy offensive opportunities.
“I learned over the summertime whenever I rebound and start the break, it’s better for our team,” Westbrook said. “It gives the opposing team problems when I’m able to do that and push the break and get us easy points.”
The Thunder certainly didn’t hum along against the 76ers, struggling early to find an offensive flow before finally breaking loose with a 9-0 run — sparked by guess who? — to end the third quarter. It wasn’t an encouraging performance for OKC, outside of the fact Westbrook didn’t shoot particularly well, and Serge Ibaka finished 4-of-12 from the field, missing a number of clean midrange looks. Had three or four more gone down, Westbrook’s line would’ve been that much more ridiculous.
The good news is the Thunder have to weather only a brief non-Durant storm, the primary help being a softened schedule, starting with Philadelphia on Friday. But no matter, the Thunder should be in fine shape. Uncaged and unfiltered Russell Westbrook has been unleashed again, if only for a week.