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
The experience of watching Russell Westbrook cook this season no longer feels tethered to the act of winning. Maybe it never did; the idea of the Thunder as contenders was tenuous at best, and has since broken down completely — they are merely good enough, within a tier among many, directly below the West’s ruling class. Does that cheapen the experience a bit? Does Westbrook’s 49-point, eight-rebound, and five-assist performance lose some of its luster knowing that it came in a 118–116 loss to the Rockets on Thursday night? It depends on what you value, and how much you value it. But there is no player I’d rather watch physically demonstrate the capriciousness of sports.
Russ was nearly untouchable in the first half, drilling 10 of his 15 attempts. Half of his makes came from midrange from the right side of the floor, where Westbrook put on an exhibition so pristine that former life-ruiner Patrick Beverley could only shake his head as shot after shot sailed over his head and into the basket. Another three of his makes came from behind the arc.
Then, not 40 seconds into the second half, this happened:
So, yeah, it’s a little hard to blame Westbrook for thinking the night just might’ve been one touched by divinity. It’s rarely ever that easy. The right side of the floor betrayed him in the final two frames; Russ missed all seven of his midrange jumpers from that area of the court, and he was 6-for-19 in the game’s last 24 minutes.
Fortunately, against the team on pace to be the most prolific 3-point shooting team in history, Westbrook unleashed his own modern artillery. The Thunder’s comeback from 18 points down was a product of Russ’s unconventional (by his standards) route to the bulk of his 49 points. Of those six makes in the second half, five of them were from 3. Westbrook had a career-high eight 3-pointers made on 15 attempts on the night, almost all of them instinctive pull-ups — shots that feel like vicarious adrenaline injections for Thunder fans, but shots that opposing defenses are OK with. There is no more live-or-die player in the NBA than Russell Westbrook, and his career night from deep allowed Charles Barkley’s most frequently used mantra to arise as a portent: You live by jompers, you die by jompers. His final make from 3 brought the Thunder within one point with 2:38 remaining in the game; his final miss from 3, with 5.7 seconds remaining on the clock, opened the door for a heartbreaking finish.
Clutch time, as defined by NBA.com, is any point within the final five minutes of a game where the point difference is five points or fewer. This season, no player has attempted more 3-pointers in crunch time than Russell Westbrook, who has 32 attempts after Thursday night, which already exceeds his total figure from all of last season (30). Frankly, there aren’t that many players who actually shoot a high percentage late in games: Of the 10 players who have attempted the most 3-pointers in clutch time, only Isaiah Thomas and Eric Gordon have managed to shoot above 30 percent.
But with Westbrook, his late-game hoists have always felt incongruous to the way in which he’s wired, and they unnecessarily highlight the questionable decision-making that has always been the crutch of any criticism against him. They’ve been a vexing fascination of mine for years, and Thursday night’s stagnant, clock-draining isolation 3 with the game tied at 116 was just the latest example. After the game, he was asked about the play. His response:
It’s not a satisfying answer, but I’ve found a bit more comfort — or at least some semblance of understanding — through some postgame comments he made after his December 29 ejection: “I can’t even say nothing when I’m getting hammered every time I go to the damn basket throughout the games and previous games,” Westbrook said. “Not tonight, but every night. I just don’t get ref’d the same way as other people, and I don’t appreciate it.” In the past, Westbrook has defended his late-game 3s as seeing the game for what it is. Perhaps from his perspective, there’s a better chance of him making a pressure 3 with the clock winding down than there is of him driving into the lane in a pressure situation and getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s cynical, but, in a way, Russ is just playing a numbers game.
Runner-up: Lucas Nogueira
Look, people are going to focus on the why here, and, OK, fair. Maybe it’s a cultural thing: Fellow Brazilian Leandro Barbosa was once mercilessly teased as a young player in Phoenix for wearing tighty-whities in the locker room. Bebe Nogueira straight-up pulling his shorts all the way down in front of thousands of people in the Raptors’ 101–93 home win over the Jazz feels similar: It’s not that these guys have no shame, it’s that body-related social stigmas aren’t exactly consistent across all humankind, you know?
In any case, this is a remarkably heady (fanny? — sorry) display of gamesmanship on the part of Bebe, who has only 68 NBA games (regular season and playoffs) under his belt since being drafted in 2013. Should he emerge from the meme-driven economy unscathed, the Raptors analytics department might have to look into the viability of selective exhibitionism as a competitive advantage. Dropping one’s shorts in the middle of a free throw attempt has already proved to be infinitely more effective than icing a kicker in football.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Korver
How many times do you think Kyle Korver has fantasized about being the beneficiary of the Cavs’ “Punch Snap Hammer” since it was unveiled to the world at the start of this season? Whatever the number, I can assure you it’s not as many times as I’ve thought about it in the past few hours.