Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook’s default pose is him wriggling out of a jam. Early in Tuesday night’s 106–94 win over the Miami Heat, Westbrook finagled his way through three Heat defenders while doing his best David Tyree impression, the ball pinned blindly to the side of his head. The basket — blandly described in the game log as a “running layup shot” rather than “one man fights for humanity’s survival” — gave him six points just over six minutes into the game; by halftime, he was only two rebounds shy of his 15th triple-double this season. He would finish with 29 points, 17 rebounds, and 11 assists.
Westbrook stands out — in a game, in the league, in life — because he moves at a pace and on a wavelength all his own. He’s not so much silky as he is slippery; he can appear to be careening out of control even if he knows precisely where he is. I was surprised to learn that he’s not a younger brother, because he possesses that full-body, get-off-me strength that usually comes from a childhood of being wrestled to the ground. Often, this can look jarring, like there’s been a glitch in his mainframe, until you realize that he is deliberately jerking and lunging and stutter-stepping that way.
This tendency isn’t limited to his on-court jukes; off the court, Westbrook is also a moving target who knows just what he’s doing, even if what he’s doing is something strange. His ongoing drama with respect to best frenemy Kevin Durant has been hard to look away from or move past. In any breakup, the subsequent behavior of the scorned is always worth dissecting: Are they lashing out on Facebook? Losing or gaining weight? Posting cryptic photos of cupcakes as a meaningful dig, as Westbrook did when Durant left Oklahoma City this summer in search of a delicate ecosystem to trample in Oakland? Rallying friends to the cause?
When Westbrook showed up to the Thunder’s game against the Warriors earlier this season in a zany orange photographer’s pinnie, it was like leaving song lyrics in an away message: pointed, yet plausibly denied. In Westbrook’s case, his excuse for that was that he had been sartorially inspired while in Madrid. “I don’t wear anything for anybody,” he said, sashaying past the question the way he blows by guys in the paint. “I wear what I want to wear.”
Which is why, for much of this past Christmas Day, people were convinced that Westbrook had publicly praised Kyrie Irving for defeating Durant and the Warriors. His excuse that he had yelled, “Thank you, Jayme!” because that’s, uh, his trainer’s, uh, kid, yeah, that’s right! felt very “My girlfriend lives in Canada,” but his story actually did check out. Still, perception is reality, which is why if you ask someone about it in 10 years, or even during this season’s playoffs, they’ll probably fully misremember it as Westbrook being petty toward Durant, case closed. That’s the way this sort of high school gossip works.
In general, though, this has been an “I’m better without you” kind of season for Westbrook. The question Tuesday night wasn’t whether he would get his 15th triple-double in 32 games — it was how quickly it would happen. (Answer: in the third quarter.) “It feels like 32 triple doubles in 15 games,” a wise Redditor later said. The last time a visiting player earned a regular-season triple-double in Miami was in 2001, when Westbrook was still a tween.
Westbrook often gets criticized for being selfish, for “stealing rebounds away from bigs and seeking out assist opportunities,” and it’s a valid issue — it’s not sustainable for him to try to do everything, and in the long run it probably can’t lead to true winning basketball. But after a night like last night, when Russell was everywhere at once and all things to all people, his description sort of came across like Bill O’Reilly complaining that the left wants “a profound change in the way America is run.” Yeah … and?
Westbrook has gotten increasingly efficient over the years. He now leads the NBA in assist percentage — 56.0 percent of his teammate’s field goals involve his direct input — a largesse that was evident in Miami (and not just at the area restaurants.) He returned the favor Enes Kanter gave him the other night several times over. He set up Steven Adams, the other Stache Brother, for an early-game slam with a bounce pass; later, he tossed up an alley-oop that resulted in Adams enjoying a piggyback ride from Hassan Whiteside.
But sometimes it was, fittingly, just a one-man show. In one third-quarter sequence, Westbrook rose above a tangle of bodies to rebound the ball, drove it the length of the court, made you think he might dish it again, and instead sliced in for a cool little bank shot. The NBA.com video of the play is titled “Controlled Tornado.” That’s Westbrook: a tight whirlwind, caused by unstable air, that cuts a huge, messy path of destruction. I have no doubt the dude could and would toss around a few cows.
Runner-up Who Is Ninth on His Team in Scoring: Joe Ingles!
A journeyman’s journeyman, Ingles’s résumé includes stints in Israel and Spain as well as a bizarro-world situation in which an Australian team called the Adelaide 36ers insulted him by delivering a contract with his name misspelled. Joke’s on them, because not only did Ingles hit what would turn out to be the game-winning corner 3 Tuesday night in the Utah Jazz’s 102–100 win over the Lakers, he also forced the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell to chuck up an air ball at the buzzer.
Runner-up Who Was Also a Runner-up Tuesday: James Harden
Harden may be falling behind in the King of the Court electoral college, but he’s winning the popular vote. One night after a 32-point performance against the Suns inspired our own Jason Concepcion to use the words “Mike D’Antoni stat juice” in a sentence, Harden followed up with 34 points and 11 assists as the Rockets cruised over the Mavericks 123–107 in a game that got way more intense after the final whistle than during regulation. (Patrick Beverley’s use of “upmost” is also itself a runner-up.)
Runner-up, Teamwork Edition: Isaiah Thomas
Thomas occasionally did it all himself (I’m really distracted by the man in the stands who looks like he’s wearing a wig of the woman behind him) but six different Celtics scored in double figures Tuesday night as Boston beat the Memphis Grizzlies 113–103. Even Gerald Green got a standing O!
Runner-up Who Would Not Need a Headscarf to Ride in a Convertible: Gordon Hayward
Utah’s swingman finished with 31 points and 9 rebounds in 34 minutes, but the announcers were more interested in objectifying him. What price beauty?