The Thunder were down by 14 points to the Magic halfway through the fourth quarter. They had been down 21 in the third. This was also their third game in four nights.
They lost by 12 against the Rockets three days before, when Russell Westbrook scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and at one point brought his team to within nine after the Thunder had been down by 20-plus. They beat the Mavericks a day later after being down by 13 points with 3:30 left in the game, and Westbrook scored 16 of the Thunder’s last 18 points. In the fourth quarter overtime against the Magic on Wednesday night, he scored 26 points.
Westbrook’s game-tying shot was an otherwise reckless transition three over two defenders with mere seconds left on the clock. But he was hot. And no one else on that team deserved the glory or burden of that shot more than him. The basket put him at 50 points. He would go on to have 57 total, the most points ever scored while recording a triple-double.
There’s an entry in Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks where he writes: "Atlas was permitted the opinion that he was at liberty, if he wished, to drop the Earth and creep away; but this opinion was all that he was permitted."
The Thunder are 31-7 when Westbrook has a triple-double. They have only won 43 games total. What he does — these consistently ridiculous performances that have to be reduced and boxed into the category of “triple-double” to be more easily understood — is wholly out of necessity.
The Thunder needed Westbrook to have a once-in-a-generation season, otherwise they would be lost. They needed him to score 19 points in the fourth, or they would have lost to the Magic. They needed him to be their be-all and end-all, because that is the only way that they can survive, much less thrive.
Inflated rebound numbers be damned — this is not a case of stats padding. Westbrook could very well do less, but he would do so knowing that his team would more likely lose. He could satisfy the critics and preserve himself by lessening his burden of carrying the team, but he would be purposely putting the Thunder in a vulnerable position. For someone who wants to win every game, that is not an option, not even in overtime during his third game in four days.
Westbrook does not have empty triple-doubles, he has “I will drag us as far as I can” triple-doubles.
This effort against the Magic makes the swipe that the Rockets took at his season seem even sillier.
There is nothing bad that can be said about James Harden, and there’s no need to admonish him in favor of Westbrook. He is having a fantastic season of his own, and if he wins MVP, he would deserve it. Harden has done wonders for the Rockets while raising his play to incredible and unforeseen levels. Anyone who besmirches someone to praise another lacks a strong argument, and is probably just a hater.
But we’ve gotten to a point in the MVP argument where Westbrook is disregarded because he’s not as efficient as Harden, because he’s not the playmaker in a Mike D'Antoni offense, because of a small percentage difference — 3 percent — in uncontested rebounds.
We’re also at a point where certain stats about how each team’s offense performs without the two MVP candidates on the court, and how much each player raises his team’s play when they do come in the game, are being ignored for devious reasons — where advanced statistics are no longer being used to illuminate, but rather to wash away wonder and push an agenda of expertise.
Westbrook is not James Harden. He doesn’t have to be.
He is Russell Westbrook, and he is doing things this season that should only be possible in Japanese anime. There is no need to do mental and analytical gymnastics to reason yourself out of the wonder of his season. He has scored the most points ever in a triple-double, and he has gone perfect from the field in another one. He has snatched victory away from other teams by sheer will, as he did against the Mavericks and Magic, and against the Grizzlies when he scored 15 points with 2:35 left to play. He has done that and so much more, so that every Thunder game is a must-watch just to see what he comes up with next.
That is his case for MVP. The only reason that the Thunder are in the playoffs — why they’re even a subject of discussion — is that Westbrook refused to let them fall apart. If he should win MVP, and he deserves it as much as Harden does, it is because he’s willing and capable of having a once in a lifetime season — full of absurd numbers, shattered records, and unimaginable comebacks — to push himself and his team as far as they’ll go. That is something to be rewarded, not disparaged.