Russell Westbrook loves him some Game 7.
He has played in only two of them in his career, but in both, he’s had a triple-double. The only other players in NBA history who can say they’ve had a triple-double in a Game 7 are Jerry West, Larry Bird, James Worthy, Scottie Pippen and Rajon Rondo.
Pretty tall cotton there.
But only two of those guys did it twice. Westbrook and Rondo are the only men in history who can claim that grand feat.
On a night when the Thunder defeated the Grizzlies 120-109 to wrestle a series victory away from a feisty bunch from Memphis, Westbrook was the catalyst. As much as Kevin Durant’s return to form in the last two games of this series was a necessity, the Thunder becomes a nearly unbeatable team when Westbrook plays this way. Heady. Controlled. Aggressive.
Down right masterful.
Westbrook’s line: 27 points, 10 rebounds, 16 assists.
And he threw in two steals and one tomahawk-off-the-rim block of a Tony Allen shot.
After the game, I asked Memphis coach Dave Joerger about Westbrook’s impact on the Thunder in the final two games of the series, a pair of must-win games for Oklahoma City, and before he answered, he took a moment to try and answer Westbrook’s critics, of which there are still many.
“I have no idea why he takes the flack that he takes,” Joerger said. “This man can play. He’s one of the most talented people in the league.
But really, the way Westbrook played Thursday in Memphis and Saturday in Oklahoma City is one of the reasons that people criticize. They see the greatness. They watch the mastery. And they wonder why it isn’t always that way, why there are those out-of-control moments and shoot-too-soon possessions.
Thing is, games like Saturday are becoming way more common than the other.
“He was aggressive without being out of control,” Joerger said. “He was able to find some guys on the perimeter, hit them in the hands, and guys felt comfortable hitting those shots.”
Westbrook struck a great balance between facilitating for others and working for himself. As a guy who can get his own shot, it’s not always easy to toe the line between the two. But after the first five games of this series, Westbrook knew that he had to be more forceful.
More aggression, less settling.
He shot 38 3-pointers in the first five games combined, and many of them came early in the shot clock.
“We were shooting too many walk-up threes off the screen, and that’s what (Memphis) wanted,” Westbrook said. “I just looked at film and seen where I can find open ones.”
The last two games, he took four threes. He only took two on Saturday night, and he knocked both of them down. That’s the kind of picking and choosing that Westbrook must do for the Thunder to be at their best.
“I got on him a few times for passing up shots,” Durant said, “but I think he picked and chose his spots very well. He was getting everyone involved and rebounding the basketball, but when we needed baskets, he was aggressive enough to get to the rim and make his pull-up jump shot.
“He just played a full game tonight. A few turnovers here and there … ”
Westbrook, who was sitting next to Durant as he spoke to reporters, smirked.
It’s true that Westbrook had a few too many turnovers. He finished with seven, but he only had three in the final three quarters. Still, his four turnovers in the first quarter helped the Grizzlies not only stay in the game but also build a double-digit lead.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game that two of those first-quarter turnovers were on Westbrook but that the other two were the fault of teammates.
“We weren’t in the right space,” Brooks said. “The court was shrinking while he was attacking. We want to space when he’s attacking.”
The guys around him got it right, and so did Westbrook.
In the past 30 years, only one player has had a 25-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound performance in a playoff game while shooting at least 60 percent from the floor.
And for it to happen in a pressure-packed situation like Game 7 makes it even more amazing.
“I don’t want to go home,” Westbrook said. “You fought too hard to get to this point. We were down, and we fought too hard to put ourselves in position to come back home in front of our fans to let them down.”
Rest assured, Russ, this wasn’t a letdown, and you were a big reason why.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.