OKLAHOMA CITY — With five seconds remaining in the first half Monday night against the New York Knicks, Russell Westbrook whipped a pass to Joffrey Lauvergne under the basket. Kristaps Porzingis reached out to deflect the pass, resulting in a Thunder turnover. Time expired, and Oklahoma City took a 58-55 lead into halftime.
Westbrook was on the verge of a rare halftime triple-double. With 14 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, the Thunder star just needed Lauvergne to catch and finish, but Porzingis' fingertips ruined it. That Westbrook passed up a mildly contested jumper in his comfort zone in favor of a risky pass spoke volumes.
He wanted that assist before the halftime buzzer sounded.
Westbrook finally got that pesky dime early in the third quarter, finishing with an eye-popping 27 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists during the Thunder's 112-103 victory. It was his third straight triple-double and his eighth of the season.
Monday's performance pushed him into triple-double averages for the season: 30.9 points, 11.3 assists, and 10.4 rebounds per game. He joined some exclusive company in the process.
It's a nightly effort that seems nearly impossible to sustain, but Thunder head coach Billy Donovan is a believer.
"Yeah, he could do it," Donovan said, per Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript, when answering whether Westbrook could average a triple-double for the entire season.
"I'm not gonna say he is or isn't because I think the more important thing is Russell is winning, but he's a guy that has great impact on generating assists. He has a great impact on rebounding the basketball, and he can score. So, there's certainly a possibility that can happen."
This kind of regular production is categorically dominant, yet it could lead some to wonder whether these nightly miracles are coming at a cost to the team. Is there any validity to this criticism? Let's do a quick scoreboard check.
Westbrook logged 18 triple-doubles last season, and the Thunder went a perfect 18-0 during those contests. His team has won six of his eight triple-double performances this year. The two losses, to the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers, were by a combined six points.
Does Westbrook have any parlor tricks for racking up these numbers?
On at least two occasions last season, he's checked back into games that were already decided with an eye on picking up a few extra statistics:
That sort of obvious stat-stuffing has caused some to label Westbrook as self-centered about his numbers, which isn't fair. He's almost certainly not the only player in NBA history to have a real-time box score running in his head. If Westbrook is indeed chasing numbers, he's doing it with a gravitas we're not used to seeing.
This isn't Ricky Davis shooting at his own hoop in a 25-point win. It's not Andray Blatche begging opponents to give up a rebound in the closing seconds (and subsequently running a one-on-five fast break in an attempt to miss a shot intentionally). It's not an entire crowd/bench laughing it up when James Harden's teammates keep stealing his rebound, and it's certainly not the Wizards doing everything in their power to get JaVale McGee a trip-dub in a 19-point loss (and him getting a technical foul for hanging on the rim in celebration).
In a sense, Westbrook is playing like a competitive runner who wants to beat his previous best time. The challenge of topping his feats serves as motivational fuel.
Westbrook has been known to force the issue on occasion when he needs another assist or two to complete his stat line. He's also been criticized for attempting to rack up dimes early in the game, but that doesn't hold water. If he doesn't do that, then he's scoring points early and getting criticized for not involving his teammates.
He's in a no-win scenario, not that it bothers him.
"I don't really care, honestly, man," Westbrook said Monday night. "I just like to win and compete at a high level. I play the same way every night. I've been playing the same way since I've been in the league."
Westbrook is by far the NBA's best rebounding guard. He's averaging more boards per game than star big men like Blake Griffin, Draymond Green and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Thunder thrive when he snags defensive rebounds, as they are a bigger threat in transition than in half-court sets.
That fact has its downsides, though. Occasionally, Westbrook will park himself near the paint on defense, hunting for a missed shot to grab. If the odds are in his favor, he can get a jump on opposing defenses. If not, he might be the cause of a defensive lapse that could burn his team.
Only Westbrook knows whether these instances are motivated by greed or goodwill. His teammates, however, can shine a light on what it's like to play with him.
"This dude right here [Westbrook] wants to win more than anything," Victor Oladipo said earlier this season after a home victory against the Phoenix Suns. "Not being here, you hear a lot about him. You hear a lot of rumors. You hear a lot of things. But sitting by him and working with him every day, and building a friendship with him every day, you realize what type of man he truly is."
"The game looks so easy. … He just needs you to set a good screen and when you're wide-open, you need to score and that's it. Accept this, just let him play and go and rebound," Lauvergne said after the Thunder's 111-109 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 22, per Katz.
Asked whether he thought his triple-double streak was sustainable, Westbrook circled back to his main theme: "Winning is sustainable."
As long as that remains true, the motivation behind his individual numbers will remain a moot point in Oklahoma City.
All stats accurate as of Nov. 29. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.