Russell Westbrook drove to the basket Sunday night with that burning-bush intensity, laid in two points and drew more than oohs from the crowd.
Westbrook drew subtle astonishment from his normally-stoic coach.
“I gave Maurice (Cheeks) a little elbow,” Scotty Brooks said. “I said, ‘We didn't see that in the ‘80s.'”
And that wasn't even Westbrook's best oh-my moment of the Thunder's 120-91 rout of Houston in the Western Conference playoffs.
With 5.6 seconds left in the third quarter, Rocket Terrence Jones dunked in a rebound. Westbrook took the relatively short inbounds pass, went into overdrive and dribbled upcourt with the speed of an Olympic sprinter on the third leg of the 400-meter relay. With 1.6 seconds left, just four seconds after Jones' dunk, Westbrook dropped the ball in the other basket.
Now you know why the Rockets, who have little answer for the likes of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, are overmatched in this series. They have no answer for Westbrook.
Now you know why, when I asked Rocket coach Kevin McHale on Monday about Westbrook's jaw-dropping play, he responded, “Which one?”
Now you know why the criticism of Westbrook, who not so long ago joined LeBron as the most-scrutinized players in the NBA, has abated and why Westbrook just might make first-team all-NBA this season, at the expense of noted tweeter Kobe Bryant.
Westbrook no longer plays basketball like his hair's on fire. He is the fire. Sunday night, Westbrook had seven rebounds and seven assists in 181/2 first-half minutes. He missed out on a triple double only because he sat out the entire fourth quarter of the rout.
“There's only one guy like Russell, and that's himself,” Durant said in Yogi-like fashion, funny but wise. “Nobody like this guy.”
True enough. Westbrook runs a historically efficient offense with a jet-pack strapped to his back. Who has ever done that? Who in NBA history has ever been this skilled and this athletic at the same time?
“Russell at his position is similar to LeBron in terms of size, speed, power, athleticism,” said Derek Fisher, who has been in the NBA since 1838. “It's tough to compare. You don't see it anywhere else. That's what makes him special.”
We have talked for years about the uniqueness of Kevin Durant. But is Westbrook's skill set any less rare?
Brooks was asked Monday to think of someone in NBA history as fast with the ball as Westbrook. Brooks failed, though he doesn't claim his memory goes back to the ‘70s.
“He's an amazing athlete,” Brooks said. “He has as quick a first step, and the ability to finish with either hand above the rim, and a lot of players can't do that with either hand, above the rim. You can't ever take a possession off when you guard him.”
Don't look now, but Westbrook's defense is getting better, too. Often in the past, Westbrook would relax or get lost. Not too much anymore. If that continues, the NBA will shudder.
“He can guard many different players,” Brooks said. “Our backcourt is a defensive backcourt, with Russell and Thabo (Sefolosha). They can guard each other's man.”
Foes have thrown up their hands for years on how to game plan against Durant. But is the concern any less on how to neutralize Westbrook, who plays with a relentlessness that casts a mighty shadow over every Thunder game?
“His maturation to becoming an All-Star has really been something,” said Rocket coach Kevin McHale. “He plays downhill and he plays aggressive and he's coming at you.”
I love that term. Downhill. Westbrook point guards the way Franz Klammer skied. Klammer seemed to fly over the snow. Westbrook seems to fly over the hardwood.
I asked Westbrook about his warp-speed basket.
“When time is short like that, you've got to find a way to get the best shot possible for your team,” Westbrook said. “That's what I tried to do.”
But what if a defender gets in your way?
“I'm pretty sure they're not,” said the fireball, who is transforming point guard play the way Colin Kaepernick is transforming quarterbacking and who has the Thunder back in the hunt for an NBA championship.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.