We speculated, imagined and dreamed, but no one actually expected Russell Westbrook to average a triple-double.
As remarkable as the feat is, it should be remembered not as the end goal, but rather the end result of a player carrying his team.
By eclipsing six assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 120-99 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday, Westbrook locked in a triple-double average for the season, joining Oscar Robertson as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish the ultra rare holy trinity.
Westbrook, who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, fell just shy of overtaking Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season with what would have been his 42nd, but has three games remaining to own that mark.
By securing a triple-double average though, the 28-year-old force of nature has immortalised his season, which will be remembered with great admiration and respect, as Robertson’s famous 1961-62 campaign is.
What’s insane in what has been a season of crazy is that Westbrook may not even win the Most Valuable Player award, potentially losing out to other worthy candidates in James Harden, Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James.
Regardless of your view on who should earn the honour, it’s impossible to deny how much of the burden Westbrook has shouldered, especially in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure.
The fact that he’s registered triple-doubles with regularity has been the result of that burden.
There is no ‘chicken or the egg’ question here. Oklahoma City often win when Westbrook reaches double digits across the three categories. Westbrook doesn’t get triple-doubles because the Thunder win.
It’s not a coincidence that he averages 31.7 points, 11.8 assists and 11.4 rebounds in wins this season, compared to 31.6 points, 8.6 assists and 9.7 rebounds in losses.
Westbrook gets killed for ‘stat padding’ and while there are instances when he’s chasing numbers, those moments are heavily outweighed by the moments he’s doing everything in his power to help Oklahoma City win by any means necessary.
“My main goal since I got here, especially this season, is to win a championship,” Westbrook said after the loss to Phoenix. “If I wanted to get 10 assists, I could get 10 assists. Everybody wants to see the record broke, but it’s bigger than that for our team and for me.”
Yes, triple-doubles hold too much importance. They’re a measure of arbitrary, round numbers at the end of the day. But Westbrook has given meaning to those numbers and for that, his historic campaign should be appreciated.
With the Golden State Warriors currently riding a 13-game winning streak, it’s fair to wonder, as it was last summer, how much better they can be with Kevin Durant. Unlike last summer though, we now have plenty of empirical evidence that makes the answer to that question abundantly clear.
Durant, who has been sidelined by a knee injury for the past 19 games since suffering a left MCL sprain on February 28, will make his return tonight against New Orleans (tip-off: 06:30+1), one week ahead of the start of the playoffs.
Depending on how coach Steve Kerr chooses to handle Durant, the Warriors could get three games under their belt with the former MVP back on the floor before the entering the postseason.
It may not be enough time to fully assimilate Durant to the point Golden State are firing on all cylinders again like they were before he went down, but it at least starts the process before the games truly begin to matter.
In the two weeks after Durant was hurt, the Warriors weren’t exactly in a free-fall, but they did drop five of seven games and showed concerning signs as to how they could manage in his absence.
Since then, however, Golden State have looked akin to the juggernaut of the past two years that didn’t need a fourth All-Star to dominate. They’ve reeled off 13 straight victories, including an impressive three-game stretch that featured two wins over Houston and another against San Antonio.
Surprisingly, the Warriors’ defence has somehow improved sans Durant. While it shouldn’t be the case when you lose a long, rangy and versatile defender from your lineup, Golden State’s defensive rating has dropped from 101.3 points surrendered per 100 possessions before Durant’s injury, to 100.5 after. Over that span, the Warriors rank first in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 43.1, while ranking fifth in 3-point percentage allowed at 32.2.
What hasn’t been surprising in the wake of Durant’s injury though, has been the return of Stephen Curry as an alpha scorer.
The two-time reigning MVP is averaging two full points more since February 28, while shooting slightly higher percentages from the field and 3-pointers on more volume. Instead of willingly deferring to Durant and slotting as the second option, the injury has forced Curry to assume more responsibility and he’s thrived as he did over the past two seasons.
Even with Durant coming back, Curry’s play of late should allow Golden State to function with even more balance going forward.
But for as well as have the Warriors have done without Durant, it still hasn’t been near the peak of their world-beating form when he’s been available.
They weren’t on a pace to match or better their record 73 wins from last season, but judging by the point differential between this year’s team with Durant and last year’s historic squad, the Warriors are better now.
With Durant healthy, Golden State have outscored opponents by 12.8 points, a rate that would be the best in history and top the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 12.3.
A better question would be if the Warriors can win the title without Durant because it’s obvious they’re the clear favourites with him. A lot depends on how quickly they can get back in sync, but if and when they do, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them.
As far as regular season games go, tonight’s meeting between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers holds more weight than usual.
Both teams are tied atop the Eastern Conference with a 50-27 record and with four games left after this one, it’s obvious this encounter could potentially determine the top seed.
Cleveland enter with the season series in their favour, having won two of the previous three clashes. If they can assert their will at TD Garden and come away with another win, they’ll have the luxury of the tiebreaker if both squads finish with the same record. Boston, meanwhile, can even the series and force conference record to come into play if neither team finishes ahead of the other.
But aside from the tangible, there is reason for both teams to play well and come out on top.
It’s not a bold statement to say the Celtics need this one more. A victory now may not mean anything come May, but Boston, who are never short on self-confidence, would at least prove to themselves they can hang with their biggest nemesis in a playoff series. Punching the bully in the mouth could be beneficial if these teams see each other again in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s not to say Cleveland couldn’t use a win. LeBron James may not believe so, as he said leading up to the game: “I’m not one to get caught up in regular season big games. I’ve been to six straight Finals; I’m the last person to ask.” But as much reason as James has to focus on the bigger picture, the Cavaliers are in a fragile position. They suffered double-digit losses last month and their defence didn’t just look leaky, it looked completely broken.
If Cleveland are planning to flip the switch, they might as well make sure the light still works in Boston.