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The Thunder Were Built to Make Russell Westbrook Great

He’s amazing on his own, and OKC’s supporting cast makes him even better

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The frame of reference for “modern basketball” is ridiculously broad, but the two words conjure a specific ethos: inefficiencies are not only bad, but also evil; you can’t get into heaven with 15-second isos. Everything runs smoothly and to plan, and ideally the ball moves from one end of the floor to the other without ever touching the ground, just like we practiced in our five-on-zero drills. Say it with me: extra pass, wide-open-to-lightly-contested corner 3, zero emissions.

The final six minutes of regulation in OKC’s 114–106 victory over Orlando on Wednesday night, during which Russell Westbrook scored 19 points (how you MEAN?!?), was extremely not that. The gears ground against each other, the windshield wipers developed a consciousness of their own, and the Thunder sputtered down the stretch before lurching across the finish line in a plume of smoke with the check-engine light on. Was it pretty? No. Would I have it any other way? Also no.

Russ was balling so out of control he got MVP chants on the road, man.

Listen here: I am never more alive or closer to death than when Westbrook is barreling down the court in a clutch situation. Of course, what results is barely basketball in the way we usually mean it — for all his orchestrating and deferring to other teammates this season (he’s third in assists per game), Westbrook still plays like he’s only ever had to shoot for ball. Meaning, Westbrook plays NBA games like I play 21 in the park. It’s an offense completely unto himself — and it works because everyone else’s primary directive is pulverize the boards, kick it back out to Russ, rinse, repeat. Since acquiring Taj Gibson from the Bulls at the trade deadline, the Thunder have led the league in offensive rebounding, and Westbrook is getting a lot of those second-chance points, plus, you know, the second-chance points he gets on his own.

It’s not a roster built to help Westbrook so much as it was built to respond to and amplify him. That functionality invites the boilerplate critique of selfishness, which has evolved this year to a more considered one about how the Thunder orbit him, even though they were literally built to do so. It’s old hat to live and die on the foibles of one player, but whatever because it’s also riveting.

I’m not saying that the 2016–17 Thunder are basically the early-2000s Sixers with Steven Adams and Taj Gibson where George Lynch and Dikembe Mutombo are supposed to be, but I’m also not not saying that. (This is exactly what I’m saying.)

It’s not efficient in any sense, but in the absence of efficiency I will gladly take incidental effectiveness. Actually, I’d like it in an IV so I can just put it directly in my veins.

To tabulate the results, that’s the most points ever in a triple-double (57) — which was also his 38th of the season — the largest comeback in franchise history (21-point deficit at the half), and a playoff spot clinched. Most of that on sheer will alone. It’s cute that this MVP thing is still a discussion.