How Westbrook kept shooting toward historic triple-double
After just missing against Suns, the MVP candidate worked out alone for almost an hour
A frustrated Russell Westbrook had been working out in the Phoenix Suns’ practice gym for about 30 minutes after the final buzzer when Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan began heading out to the team bus.
Westbrook had already given notice that he was finding his own way back to the Thunder’s hotel in Phoenix on Friday night. And as Donovan stood outside the practice gym doors where the NBA MVP candidate was breaking more of a sweat after a bad night when history was and wasn’t made, the coach smiled widely in appreciation of his uber-competitive star.
“That’s what makes him great,” Donovan told The Undefeated. “My wife was back in Florida for spring break. So what am I going to do? Go home? I can’t cook. So what do I do? I stay in the office. Nine o’clock [at night], 9:30, here he comes rolling in on the shooting gun. We had an off day and I told the guys to get away after a long stretch we had, no practice, no nothing. 5:30 at night, here he comes into the weight room lifting by himself.
“He’s really, really, really just committed. He didn’t shoot the ball well. He probably felt those were shots he should have made. He’s going to go in there and feel better about walking out of this building tonight.”
Westbrook missed 19 of 25 field goal attempts, including his first 11, and 10 of 12 3-point attempts to finish with 23 points in a 120-99 loss to the struggling yet prideful Suns. The six-time NBA All-Star had 12 rebounds and eight assists, which left him two assists shy of an NBA season-record 42nd triple-double.
Westbrook’s eight assists guaranteed he would be the first player to average a triple-double for a season since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists in 1961-62.
His Thunder teammates didn’t help his cause, as Westbrook mustered only two of the needed four assists in eight minutes in the fourth quarter. With three regular-season games remaining, Westbrook is tied with Robertson for the most triple-doubles in a season with 41.
Westbrook says he “don’t play for the records” and he puts a lot of pressure on himself daily to “compete at a high level.” With his father’s old family remedy in mind, Westbrook headed to the Suns’ practice gym shortly after the game to regroup mentally while his teammates headed to the showers in their locker room next door.
“That’s just something me and my dad [used to do],” the 6-foot-4 point guard said. “My dad always told me to get my mind right. That’s just something I always used to do. I always remember that. It can be therapeutic, whatever you want to call it. For me, it’s just overall getting my s— together. …
“You understand how important the game is. I want to make sure I’m playing the best I can for my teammates, and I feel like tonight I let them down in that aspect.”
Thunder assistant coach and former NBA point guard Maurice “Mo” Cheeks eventually made his way into the practice gym to check on Westbrook after walking past security at the two entrances. Cheeks, however, didn’t go on the hardwood floor to help. Why? Westbrook didn’t want anyone passing him the ball on the full court.
“He said he didn’t deserve for anyone to pass him the ball. He chased everyone away. He told them to leave,” a source said.
Said Donovan: “He’s an old-school guy. A man’s man. I love dealing with him. He’s very direct.”
Cheeks sat quietly in a row of seats above the court watching Westbrook work out. Meanwhile, Thunder players and other team personnel minded their own business as they got gourmet plates of food to go from a buffet line in that same practice gym. Cheeks recalled how he and his longtime pupil had conversations years ago about what the latter needed to do to be a superstar one day. Cheeks believed that Westbrook would be pretty good at the time, but he never envisioned this Robertson-like greatness.
“When I first got here, he was in his second year,” Cheeks told The Undefeated. “He and I had conversations about All-Star and just being one of the best players in the league, and he wasn’t at that time. To see where he was to where he is now is an amazing thing.
“I saw the competitiveness. I can’t say I saw the greatness like that, but I saw the level he worked, the level he practiced. If he didn’t do something that night, he tried to do better the next night. I saw that.”
Cheeks has played with Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Dominique Wilkins. The 1983 NBA champion has also coached Hall of Famer Allen Iverson and 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant. But when it comes to competitive level, Cheeks ranks Westbrook with “The Answer.”
“He and Iverson rank right up there,” Cheeks said. “They never give in. They always think they are the best player on the floor. They’re just nonstop all the time.”
Before the game, Suns coach Earl Watson said Westbrook should win the 2017 NBA MVP award. Watson played for the Thunder and was previously a teammate of Westbrook’s and his biggest MVP competition, Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
Watson’s young Suns did everything in their power in the fourth quarter to keep Westbrook from getting the assists to set the triple-double record. The Suns defended hard, ran down the shot clock and even fouled Westbrook’s teammates rather than let them make a shot for an assist.
The next of three remaining stops in Westbrook’s quest toward the triple-double record is the Rocky Mountains on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets.
Before an always introspective Watson departed from Talking Stick Resort Arena a winner, he went into the Suns’ practice gym to check on his “little brother” in Westbrook.
“He is so emotional that there is never enough time for him to calm down after a game,” Watson said of his fellow former UCLA star. “He puts so much into it physically. He goes to a place mentally where a lot of players cannot understand. He has to be, to be as impactful as he is and to do what he does.
“He doesn’t get enough time to calm down and have a conversation with him. He is really special, and he will be with the biggest smile that ever exists. But, unfortunately, the clips that are played and the interviews are not that Russ. I just think he is the MVP.”
About 45 minutes into Westbrook’s workout, most of the Thunder players had departed into a night of possible fun in Phoenix. Around that time, a stoic Thunder general manager Sam Presti entered the Suns’ practice gym to be the next person to check on his superstar.
Presti and the Thunder selected Westbrook with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Presti credited Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver for having foresight that Westbrook had star potential after two seasons at UCLA. Even with Weaver’s prediction, no one in the Thunder organization expected this explosion.
Westbrook is averaging an NBA-best 31.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game.
“Nobody can say that they knew that Russell Westbrook would turn out to be a player like this, let’s not get it twisted,” Presti told The Undefeated. “I would say we made a big bet on his heart and felt that whatever potential he had in him, he was going to reach based on who he was as a human being. I feel equally as confident that Russell Westbrook, after he is finished playing basketball, that he will be a successful person. He has the qualities of a high-achieving individual and an intrinsic motivation that runs through his veins that is truly special.”
Westbrook eventually stopped bouncing the ball in the Suns’ practice gym but remained there a little longer. He departed sans jersey and his Jordans while still donning his Thunder game shorts after being there for about an hour. Two of his very patient buddies greeted him once he finally left the practice and exchanged complicated handshakes before he told them he would be out shortly after getting showered and changed.
The renowned fashionista Westbrook eventually talked to the media wearing an “R.W.” hat and a fancy white T-shirt that read “UNDER COVER MANIAC.” He used profanity to express his strong disdain for a question about whether he was fishing for assists, as the Suns players suggested. He never blamed his teammates for not producing the needed assists in crunch time. For anyone listening, Westbrook believes the Thunder have the talent to win their first NBA title this season despite not being a top Western Conference seed. He said he wasn’t consumed with setting the NBA record for triple-doubles, but he does respect the history and accomplishment.
“You could never say in a million years that I would ever think that was even possible. For me to do it, it’s a blessing that I’m honored to be able to do in this game today at the highest level. It’s a true blessing. I’m just very thankful to be able to do it,” Westbrook said.
With media votes due Friday, there is a lot of MVP buzz about Westbrook, as he has led the Thunder to a surprising 45 wins despite the departures of Durant and Serge Ibaka. Another notable Thunder topic is a possible first-round playoff matchup against MVP challenger Harden and the Rockets. But until the regular season ends, the focus is on Westbrook passing “The Big O.”
Even if Westbrook is shy of the NBA triple-double record entering Wednesday’s regular-season finale against the Nuggets, sources say Robertson will be there to celebrate however it all settles. There are also rumors that NBA commissioner Adam Silver may be at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City as well during the regular-season finale.
“If history is taking place, there is a plan as to how we try to recognize that. But only at the end point,” said Presti, without revealing any details. “Russell has led the charge in not taking the focus off the team and the winning. But there is also a time and place to recognize history, and we will do that.”