The NBA record 42 triple-doubles took on a life of their own, fascinating fans around the NBA, resulting in Russell Westbrook hearing MVP chants in road arenas as he closed in on Oscar Robertson’s record. But it was the highlights along the way that kept folks on their edge of their seats every second Westbrook was on the floor.
Westbrook made historic production predictable while leading the league in scoring and averaging a triple-double for the season. It was a safe bet every night that he’d stuff the box score. However, it was how he put up those numbers — the point guard’s penchant for the spectacular — that made Westbrook the NBA’s most must-watch player.
In consultation with his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates, ESPN.com picked three of the most heart-pounding, unforgettable plays from Westbrook’s triple-double season. Here are the stories behind Russ’ most ridiculous highlights through the eyes of his supporting cast:
The lefty dagger dunk
The scene: Nov. 16 vs. HOU (OKC up 103-100, 7.1 seconds remaining in fourth quarter)
Westbrook is a man of his word. He told teammates Victor Oladipo and Jerami Grant before the game that he would throw down a dunk with his left hand (Westbrook is left-handed for everything but shooting a basketball). The southpaw slam happened at the most dramatic moment possible.
“He just put an exclamation point on the game,” Grant said, shaking his head and smiling about the play five months later.
With Alex Abrines inbounding the ball from the baseline, Westbrook initially floated toward midcourt, putting his hand up to request a pass over the defense. As Rockets wing Corey Brewer sprinted toward him to deny the pass, Westbrook suddenly darted down the right sideline toward the ball and had built a full head of steam when he caught the pass on the wing.
Seeing an open path to the rim, Westbrook instantly attacked, taking one dribble with his right hand and launching off two feet from the block. After defending the inbounds pass, Capela turned in time to challenge Westbrook, who cocked the ball back in his left hand and ferociously flushed it over the springy center’s outstretched right arm.
“I think that’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen him do so far,” Oladipo said.
“I think that’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen him do so far.”
Thunder G Victor Oladipo, on Russell Westbrook’s highlight-reel dunk against Houston
Westbrook landed flat on his behind, popped back up in a split-second and celebrated the slam by pounding his chest with his fists, stomping and snarling while high-fiving and chest-bumping teammates en route to the Thunder bench as the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd roared.
“I think that’s kind of like Russ in a nutshell,” said Nick Collison, the only Thunder player who has been on the roster the entirety of Westbrook’s career. “The smart play is to pull it out and get fouled, but he saw this seam and didn’t hesitate and just went for it. If there’s any hesitation at all, he’s not able to finish that play, but the way he attacked it and knew he was going to make the play was just incredible.
“No one else can make that play. There’s maybe some guys who are athletic enough, but to see that seam and just hit it and know that he’s going to make that play, he’s the only guy who can do that.”
The bounce pass that defied physics
The scene: Mar. 16 at Toronto (OKC up 54-42, 2:12 remaining in second quarter)
The play: Westbrook fires a bullet, cross-court bounce pass that traveled approximately 45 feet and went between Raptors guard Corey Joseph’s legs before hitting Oladipo in stride for a layup late in the first half of the Thunder’s road win.
Nobody believes that Westbrook meant to pull off the nutmeg, putting the ball through Joseph’s legs from that far away. Nobody really cares, either.
“I think he just said, ‘Screw it’ and threw it,” Doug McDermott said. “That’s the kind of stuff that happens when you’re having an MVP-type year. You’re going to have those moments where you’re going to make ridiculous plays even when maybe you’re not trying to.”
In fact, Westbrook wasn’t even trying to pass the ball to Oladipo. Taj Gibson was actually the intended target, which Westbrook admitted to teammates during the next break in play.
“We were both running side by side, but Vic got it,” Gibson said. “I was in shock when I saw Vic. I was like, ‘Man, get outta here!,’ but Vic grabbed it. He was like a wide receiver and I was a cornerback. It was such a tight play. I had a defender on the side of me and Vic on the other side of me, so I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, we were able to get the bucket.”
The pass, which was Westbrook’s 10th assist of the night, would have been pretty even if it didn’t go through Joseph’s five-hole — to borrow a term Toronto hockey fans know well. It’s not every night that you see a point guard make a steal in traffic, take three dribbles to start a fast break and throw a fastball off the floor from just before half court to a sprinting teammate at the opposite elbow to complete a layup.
But it was the lucky bounce between Joseph’s legs that created the viral buzz.
“It was ridiculous,” said Oladipo, who didn’t realize exactly what happened on the play until after the game.
“That one, that was special,” added McDermott, who wasn’t sure what he had seen while watching from the bench. “Honestly, we were like, ‘What did he just do?’ Then they showed it on the replay three more times — in Toronto’s arena. Everyone was just like kind of in shock.”
The buzzer-beating, game-winning 36-foot heave
The scene: April 9 at Denver (OKC down 105-103, 2.9 seconds remaining in fourth quarter)
The play: On the day he broke Robertson’s record with his 42nd triple-double of the season, Westbrook finished a late rally in Denver with the first game-winning buzzer-beater of his career.
The Pepsi Center crowd exploded when the shot that eliminated the hometown Nuggets from playoff contention splashed through the net, then showered Westbrook with an extended standing ovation. That’s how remarkable of a season, performance and moment it was for Westbrook.
A catch-and-shoot game-winner from a dozen feet behind the 3-point line is always impressive, but it was the build-up that made Westbrook’s shot especially breathtaking.
Denver fans expressed their appreciation for witnessing history when Westbrook dished out his 10th assist with 4:17 remaining in the game to clinch the record-setting triple-double. Oklahoma City trailed by 10 points at the time. Westbrook proceeded to score all of the Thunder’s points the rest of the way to carry his team to a wild comeback win.
This wasn’t really surprising. Westbrook had pulled off similar one-man comebacks in recent road wins in Dallas and Orlando, hitting a highly contested, pull-up 30-footer to force overtime against the Magic on his way to the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history.
“In those moments, you knew it was going to be something crazy,” Kyle Singler said. “You don’t know what the play’s going to be or what the shot is going to be, but within the team, we knew that it was only going to be in Russ’ favor at the end of the game. It was going to be Russ’ time to make his mark on the season and to eventually put his stamp on the MVP race.”
“Just seeing him do stuff like that, it’s like a video game.”
Thunder G Semaj Christon, on Russell Westbrook’s highlights this season
The Nuggets, of course, knew that the Thunder wanted the ball in Westbrook’s hands when Singler inbounded from near half court with 2.9 seconds remaining and Oklahoma City trailing by two. Denver guard Jamal Murray denied Westbrook well enough that Singler was worried he’d steal the pass — Singler opted to inbound the ball to Steven Adams instead.
Adams had one simple thought in mind: “Give the ball to [Westbrook] and get out of the way. That’s pretty much it, mate. Just let him do his thing. He’s born to do that.”
Murray made the mistake of turning his back to Westbrook and facing Adams when the ball was inbounded, allowing Westbrook to create enough space to jack up a long jumper after receiving a touch pass from his big man. The ball rattled in, giving the Thunder the win and Westbrook his third 50-point triple-double of the season — one more than any other player in NBA history has in a career.
“Just seeing him do stuff like that, it’s like a video game,” said Semaj Christon, who sprinted toward Westbrook and met him in midair for a high-flying chest bump in the midst of a wild celebration after the shot.
“When he gets the ball, you know he’s going to make something happen.”