Wreck-it Russ: Westbrook’s path to breaking the triple-double

IN OKLAHOMA CITY’S locker room on April 5, Russell Westbrook took his usual place in front of a blank whiteboard for his postgame media availability. He had his new favorite postgame prop with him — a cup of ice water — and answered questions about the Thunder‘s much-needed win over the Detroit Pistons.

After a handful of questions, right before his near-two-minute session wrapped, he was asked almost as an afterthought about another historical mark he just accomplished: a third consecutive season averaging a triple-double.

Westbrook shrugged and started his answer with a heavy “uh,” and paused. He then went into his standard triple-double-related answer: how he’s blessed, how he’s humbled, how he’s thankful to play the game he loves.

“I do what I do every single night, regardless of what anybody says, what they call it, what they say,” Westbrook said, an apparent reference to the stat-padding accusations that follow him around. He thanked his teammates, past and present, for making his job easy.

He was asked about when the milestone will hit him — averaging a triple-double three consecutive seasons.

“I just take it one day at a time,” he began, seeming to stick with the typical answer for these kind of questions. Then he changed course.

“It’ll hit me at some point,” Westbrook said. “Like it’s gonna hit everybody else in this room, too.”

He shook the ice in his cup, gave a subtle side-eye and walked out. Point taken.

So, why hasn’t it hit us? Where were the nightly Westbrook trackers, the deep dives into history, the artsy magazine covers this time around? A feat that was once deemed unattainable had just been captured — for the third straight time.

It’s Westbrook’s own fault, really. He kind of broke the triple-double.

THREE ROUND NUMBERS have become the career bullet point, the kind of performance a player might want the game ball from or at least some signed box scores. It’s beyond just the appeal of a catchy name: triple-double. It’s an illustration of a complete and total impact on the game — scoring, rebounding, passing. It’s basketball’s version of a five-tool player.

During Westbrook’s first six seasons, he had eight triple-doubles. Each one felt like another step in a superstar trajectory. During that span, the rest of the NBA posted a total of 188. In 2014-15, Westbrook had 11. In 2015-16 — Kevin Durant‘s final season with OKC — Westbrook had 18 and started to gather attention (he matched Magic Johnson’s total from 1981-82). That season, the rest of the NBA had 57.

Triple-doubles were on the rise, and Westbrook had become synonymous with the stat: Over the past three seasons, Westbrook put up 101 triple-doubles. The rest of the NBA: 251.

Three numbers in the box score don’t stand out like they used to — there’s triple-double fatigue. Imagine if a baseball player hit for the cycle every other game, or batted .400 three straight seasons.

A triple-double is flat-out hard to get, yet Westbrook has normalized the way we talk about it.

Each one Westbrook records, though, still includes plenty of eye rolls, with skeptics saying he’s just stat-padding, or that it’s just a matter of arbitrary numbers that don’t mean anything.

The Thunder had a rocky year but hit a stride midseason that had everyone around the league fearing them. Paul George was ascending as an MVP candidate and Westbrook was driving the team. It was right in the middle of another Westbrook streak, when he made history with 11 consecutive games with a triple-double, breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record of nine.

The streak was big news, another passing of an all-time great for Westbrook. But the spotlight was nothing compared to the attention that followed him around two seasons ago.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS before Christmas in 2016, the watch was on. Westbrook was picking up triple-doubles in bunches — three in a row, five in a row, seven in a row.

Westbrook was pacing to not only average a triple-double for the first time since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, but he was doubling down and had a chance to catch a seemingly unbreakable mark: Robertson’s NBA-record 41 triple-doubles that same season.

Westbrook got No. 42 in Denver in Game No. 80, setting up teammate Semaj Christon for a corner 3. The shot cut Denver’s lead to 10 with four minutes to go. With history in hand, Westbrook scored the Thunder’s final 15 points, including a 36-footer at the buzzer that won the game 106-105.

The shot eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention, but the crowd gave Westbrook, maybe Denver’s least-favorite opposing player, a standing ovation anyway. The shot, the stats, the storyline — Durant had left for Golden State the summer before — all pushed Westbrook over the edge in the minds of MVP voters.

The next season, Westbrook was going to need to grab something like 70 boards in the final five games to hit the 10-rebound-per-game mark. He grabbed 76, including 20 on the final night of the season to clinch a second consecutive year averaging a triple-double. It sort of sneaked up on everyone, more novelty than history.

This season, Westbrook clinched it on that early April night against the Pistons, with three games to spare. It was never really in doubt — he’d been averaging a triple-double for months. It became a relative footnote to the season.

Oh hey, did you know Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again?

Setting up George’s game-winning 3 against Houston on April 9, a shot that effectively kept the Thunder out of the 8-seed, Westbrook recorded his 34th triple-double of the 2018-19 season, the third-most ever behind himself and The Big O. There were a few moments where Westbrook’s triple-doubles got our attention again, such as when he passed Wilt with his 11 straight or when he went 20-20-21 against the Lakers — only the second ever 20-20-20 game (yes, Wilt has the other).

“I think the fact that he has done this three years in a row, people don’t understand what has happened,” coach Billy Donovan said. “And I’m shocked that they don’t talk about it.

“And I know they’re [just] numbers, and I get all that stuff, but in terms of the historic part of the game, people are going to look back in time, and I think what he has done will be more appreciated later on than it is right now.”

AS THE THUNDER’S first-round series shifts to Oklahoma City, they sit in a 2-0 hole against the Portland Trail Blazers. Westbrook played a solid Game 1, resolutely setting up teammates who couldn’t make anything. He still finished with 24-10-10, his ninth career postseason triple-double. In Game 2, he was a rebound shy of another one.

Since the 2016-17 season, Westbrook is almost averaging a triple-double in the playoffs, too — 30.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 9.2 assists. The Thunder are 3-10 in those games. In his 138 career regular-season triple-doubles, the Thunder are 110-28, a shimmering example of the value those three round numbers do seem to have. But since Westbrook’s career started, the Thunder are 5-4 in the playoffs when he records a triple-double, and just 1-3 since Durant left. There’s no great explanation for it, but it’s the kind of thing that gets attached to historical résumés.

Westbrook proudly repeats that he plays the same way every night, and that kind of approach is what fuels the consistency it requires to produce a triple-double. Teammates marvel at the physical resolve and rigorous focus Westbrook plays with every single game. But, for whatever reason, the triple-double hasn’t translated to wins in the playoffs.

Westbrook projects a carefree attitude when it comes to his own legacy, but as he showed the night he clinched the triple-double season a third straight time, at some point, he would like the respect he feels he deserves.

Winning in the playoffs is what earns that above all and would be the premium validation of the Westbrook Way. But averaging a triple-double once is a historic achievement. Doing it again, and then again, is the kind of never-before-seen history that might need some time to process.

“He’ll go down as a Hall of Famer, one of the best,” George said of Westbrook. “Nobody, I don’t believe, will be able to match that or beat that.

“You’ve got to be wired a certain way on a nightly basis to be able to compete at that level. He’s special.”

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