For years, Russell Westbrook has felt like an elaborate experiment intended to produce the most irritating possible basketball discourse, as if every triple-double were a litmus test for the purity of your values as a viewer. He’s a culture war unto himself: Do you care about Winning Basketball and see right through arbitrary statistical feats? Or do you love Westbrook as an aesthetic Experience and prize a player intent on punching holes in the backboard at any cost? Like a reasonable person, I have seen my feelings vary according to his circumstances and performance. I have relished him at some times (early OKC, the healthy parts of his Houston stay) and rejected him at others (late OKC, early Wizards). Through it all, it’s that defining Westbrook quality that cuts both ways: the unshakable commitment to his brand of fast-twitch, ball-dominant, drive-and-kick basketball, with no hesitation or concession or adaptation (or defense). This is one of the best sights basketball has to offer when it’s working, and one of the worst when it’s not. It’s either life-affirming self-belief or mule-stubborn self-sabotage, depending.
A late-season run has buoyed Westbrook and the Wizards, who have lurched into 10th place and appear bound for the play-in tournament. And with Bradley Beal sitting out with a hamstring injury, Monday night’s game against the Hawks presented a microcosm for the demented discourse around their remaining superstar, because it was an impressive individual showing embedded within a team disappointment. By snatching a rebound over a cowed Davis Bertans, who understood at the last second that he was not supposed to touch that ball, Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s record for career triple-doubles. This was the 182nd time he had achieved the feat, this time with an eye-popping 28 points, 21 assists, 13 rebounds. He’s on his way to averaging a triple-double for the fourth time in five seasons.
As for the contest itself, Westbrook made a series of savvy plays to close out the game, including a funky line-drive push shot that popped off the front edge of the rim and into the hoop, to keep the Wizards in the mix. And then, with eight seconds left in regulation and a one-point deficit, Westbrook came up the floor and heaved up a hideous shot. Not saying he could’ve gone to the rim with three Hawks loaded onto his side of the floor, but he certainly could have taken advantage of the fact that three Hawks were loaded onto his side of the floor, and Raul Neto making his way down the floor as the trailer. This one-point game did not have to end on a 31-percent three-point shooter taking a heavily contested stepback three, as good a highlight as that might’ve made.
This shot fractured our own Slack. One staffer was quick to point out how blatantly Westbrook had ignored his open teammates on the last possession, and poked fun at him for bee-lining to the referee to retrieve the ball as a “souvenir” right after the buzzer sounded. Another simply responded that nobody was ever going to make them fall out of love with Russell Westbrook. Such is the duality of the Russell Westbrook Experience. Which side are you on?