While the last MVP winner, Kevin Durant, is out with another injury, his sidekick Russell Westbrook is doing his best to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder charging towards a playoff spot and more while making his case for winning the award, a case that looks stronger and stronger with every passing game.
The Thunder beat the crumbling Denver Nuggets 119-94 to improve to 31-25, winning six in a row and eight of their last nine. On their current winning streak, they’ve scored 110 points or more in all but one game and have one by 10 points or more in all but one game. Even without Kevin Durant, who is going to be out for at least one more week and there are already voices talking about shutting him down (which isn’t going to happen), the Thunder seem like a team that has found its rhythm and ability at long last.
It also has something to do with the teams they’ve been playing, but there’s nothing wrong with building momentum against scrubs. Serge Ibaka made it seem like he’s playing against inferior species with his 8 blocks, also scoring 20 points and grabbing 8 rebounds, playing excellent basketball of late. Enes Kanter did great with 20 points and 12 rebounds, becoming the first center for this franchise to go 20-10 since the Ervin Johnson days back in 1996.
But above all is Russell Westbrook, who was explosive, but not just. He needed only 27 minutes to finish the game with 21 points on 8-of-12 from the field, 8 rebounds and a franchise record 17 assists. He needed only three quarters to get to those numbers. A perfect game? Scott Brooks joked about that afterwards, but it was pretty damn close. The only other player in NBA history to go 20-5-15 in under 30 minutes is Magic Johnson on two separate occasions in the 1980s.
Westbrook isn’t Magic. He’s not a pass first kind of player, or going down as one of the greatest passers in the history of the game. But he is, without a doubt, the number one player on the Thunder and maybe in the league right now. Yes, his inefficiency and stubbornness on bad days can be infuriating, intolerable at times. But the Thunder’s system is based on him and Durant doing what they feel like, which on most nights, is a very good bet.
The key here is creating a supporting network for Westbrook to fall back on. On his good days it doesn’t really matter – he’s close to unstoppable in whatever he tries to do. But all the moves done this season which brought Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters (17 points) while others seem to be more and more comfortable with their roles are making it easier for Westbrook to look great. That’s extremely important as Durant misses so many games.
Can the Thunder play championship basketball from here on out? Win 24 games of their remaining 26 and start blowing by teams in the West to get themselves a more comfortable seed? Does it even matter in such a stacked conference? Westbrook playing like this makes anything seem possible, but it’s not going to be too much of a surprise if eventually the absence or slight decline of Kevin Durant will somehow hurt this team.