Then the Thunder’s rookie out of UCLA delivered an unexpected blow: 17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in a 96-87 win that complicated the Mavericks’ hunt. It was Russell Westbrook’s first triple-double, the game Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle remembers as his point of origin.
“They went through hell, and in a period like that, what talented players on young teams realize is that they hate losing, and they figure out ways to help the team win and have greater impact,” Carlisle said about the game recently. “… I don’t know that he had a lot of triple-doubles early, but there’s always a seed game, and that was probably the one for him. Look, what he’s done since, it’s been beyond remarkable. It’s hard to put into words. … I don’t know of anything that’s more impactful, statistically, than what he’s been able to do with triple-doubles.”
Almost 13 seasons and two franchises later, Westbrook on Saturday in Indianapolis tied Oscar Robertson’s NBA record of 181 triple-doubles — basketball vernacular for reaching double figures in three statistical categories in a game, most commonly points, assists and rebounds. Monday’s game in Atlanta is the Washington Wizards point guard’s first opportunity to break the record.
He will also, for the fourth time in his career, end the season averaging a triple-double. With his 22 points, 11.6 rebounds and 11.5 assists per game with four games left to play, Westbrook compiled a first year in Washington that sits beside some of his most productive years in Oklahoma City: 2018-19, 2017-18 and 2016-17, the year he became the league’s first MVP from a team that won fewer than 50 games in a full season since Houston Rockets center Moses Malone in 1982.
It would seem a player with Westbrook’s credentials would be long celebrated. But what sparks continual deliberation among basketball fans and commentators is the value of Westbrook’s signature stat. In the minds of many, his triple-doubles have become so routine they verge on meaningless.
Combine that with the 32-year-old’s outwardly gruff demeanor, his inefficiency as a shooter and, most damning of all, his zero league titles to back up his stats, and all the chatter lining Westbrook’s road to history this season has centered on one question: Do basketball fans take Russell Westbrook for granted?
“I’m just being 100 here,” 12-time all-star point guard Isiah Thomas said in a recent phone interview. “Don’t blame Russ [for not winning a title]. He’s brought what the player is supposed to bring to the table and more. … Oscar Robertson brought a lot to the table; what Milwaukee did was they went and got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor, so Oscar Robertson could win the championship. He didn’t win one without Kareem. Magic Johnson didn’t win a championship without Kareem.”
Thomas, a Hall of Famer who played from 1981 to 1994 and won two championships with Detroit, summarized how many players, coaches and commentators are digesting Westbrook’s achievement — as just that, a momentous accomplishment. No debate necessary.
Thomas stressed the sheer rarity of Westbrook’s station as something to be appreciated. In the NBA, career records hardly ever fall: After 18 seasons, LeBron James is third behind Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone on the career points list, the only active player in the top five. Stephen Curry needs to make more than 150 three-pointers to break Ray Allen’s record. On the career rebounds list, it’s legends only, with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone, Abdul-Jabbar and Artis Gilmore topping the chart.
“Very few people come into the NBA and can walk out of the NBA saying, ‘I left my mark on the game,’ ” Thomas said. “And [Westbrook] will walk out of the NBA saying he left his mark on the game. What Russ has done and what he’s doing, from an individual standpoint, those are markers that will always be there for history.”
Westbrook has been chipping away at it for some time.
It took nearly 13 seasons of piling statistical marvel on top of statistical marvel to creep toward Robertson’s record, so much so that the guard had long cemented his legacy as the modern game’s triple-double king by the time Saturday rolled around. But in true Westbrook fashion, once the record was in sight, he drove toward it at breakneck pace.
After struggling to play through a torn quadriceps at the start of the season, Westbrook notched seven triple-doubles in 14 games in March. He followed that with 14 triple-doubles in 17 games in April, which broke a record set by Chamberlain in 1968.
The push has proved emblematic of the two things his fellow players point out most often — Westbrook’s freak athleticism, especially at the rim, and his unwavering intensity.
“Russ is a special player, one of a kind,” said Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, himself a talented playmaker who patrols the court more like a jungle cat. “… This is his fourth season averaging a triple-double; there’s no way that should go unrecognized. That’s hard in this league. … I know he don’t really care too much about outside noise, but it’s time for people to give him his respect.”
“I’m going to tell you a little secret I tell Russ: He’s made differently,” said Wizards teammate Ish Smith, a fellow point guard who has known Westbrook since they were in high school. “He just really is. Russ gives you 120, 130 percent, 150 percent, 200 percent every single night. On the defensive end, offensive end, rebounding. Every aspect of the game. The thing I love about him is, it’s like a game of will for him. ‘I’m going to outlast you.’ ”
Smith also pointed out that, despite those who say Westbrook’s stat-packing has scant impact on the overall success of his teams, he has a record of 136-45 in games in which he records a triple-double. The argument holds up especially well this year, when Westbrook has been the central engine behind the Wizards’ late-season push to make the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.
“This s--- ain’t easy though, I’ll tell you that,” Westbrook said, shortly after setting the league’s single-month triple-double record in April. “… It ain’t easy. I don’t take nights off. I don’t cheat the game.”
Westbrook has been stunningly consistent in compiling triple-doubles over the years, especially considering that at 6-foot-3 he must outrebound forwards and centers who often stand six inches taller. His 42 triple-doubles in 2016-17 are the single-season record, but since 2014-15 the fewest he has logged in a full season are 11.
It took him five years after that March game in 2009 to establish himself as a regular threat. Back then, the 20-year-old Westbrook’s assessment of his inaugural triple-double, as reported in the Associated Press, was succinct.
“It feels good, especially with a win,” he said at the time. “I think if I keep coming out and playing aggressively, I’ll get another one — hopefully.”