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NBA AM: Russell Westbrook is Already Making History

Even if he doesn’t win the MVP Award, Russell Westbrook is making some serious history.

Cody Taylor

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Billy Donovan watched on as his All-Star point guard single-handedly carried the Oklahoma City Thunder to a victory after trailing by as many as 21 points. Afterward, Donovan called Russell Westbrook’s performance exceptional on Wednesday night.

In that moment, the second-year head coach may have given a small pool of reporters the understatement of the year.

It’s what this season has turned into for the Thunder. There have been no shortage of memorable performances by Westbrook. In his latest act, he finished with 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists during a historic outing.

Westbrook posted the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history and accounted for exactly half of his team’s scoring during the 114-106 overtime win. How exceptional was his performance against the Magic? Fans attending the game in Orlando began showering Westbrook with MVP chants by the end of the game.

“I don’t take this game for granted,” Westbrook said. “Every night I come out and try to compete at a high level and that’s definitely something. That’s a blessing and definitely something I can be proud of.”

The Magic led by 20 points at halftime and a free throw by Aaron Gordon to start the third quarter extended the lead to 21 points. It appeared as though the Magic just had to coast to the finish line and they’d pick up an impressive win over a team destined for the playoffs.

Instead, Westbrook checked into the game and scored 19 points during the final 7:45 of the fourth quarter to force overtime. He continued to hit big shot after big shot down the stretch. None of his shots were bigger than the three-pointer he hit with 7.1 seconds left in regulation to tie the game.

It was the second time this week that Westbrook hit a game-tying or game-winning shot. He hit the go-ahead shot against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday with 7.2 seconds left to cap off a 14-0 Thunder run to finish the game. He scored 12 of those 14 points during that stretch.

As basketball fans everywhere have marveled in his recent performances, his teammates were left in awe as well. Many players inside the Thunder locker room on Wednesday night were shocked to see Westbrook’s stat line on the box sheet.

“It’s ridiculous honestly,” Victor Oladipo said. “Words can’t really describe it. [It’s] just an honor to be able to play alongside him as he kind of etches his name in history. It’s amazing to watch. It’s good for me to watch as well.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part about watching Westbrook play is he has a seemingly infinite amount of energy at his disposal. As most players are beginning to slow down and look to rest, Westbrook is just getting started. He gives a new meaning to a “high-motor player” that brings energy and effort every night.

You just got to want it more than other people,” Westbrook said. “Every night I don’t think about getting tired, I just go out and keep going. … Being tired is what you tell yourself; I don’t think about getting tired. I just think about the next play, making winning basketball plays and try to win.”

With just eight games remaining in the regular season for the Thunder, Westbrook is close to making NBA history. He recorded his 38th triple-double of the season against the Magic and needs just three more to tie Oscar Robertson’s single season record and four more to set the all-time record.

Currently, Westbrook is averaging 31.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game. He must average 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds to finish the season averaging a triple-double. He’d become just the second player in NBA history (behind Robertson) to average a triple-double in a season and joins Robertson as the only player to average a triple-double during the month of March.

“I always say this about him like he never believes that he’s ever out of it or we’re ever out of it,” Donovan said. “He plays with an incredible, competitive spirit. He’s got a huge heart. [He’s] a huge competitor. He finds ways to make things happen. … It’s incredible what he’s doing.”

The Thunder clinched a playoff berth with the win on Wednesday and currently sit sixth in the West. They’re just a game back of the Los Angeles Clippers in fifth place and 2.5 ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, who sit in seventh. As things stand today, the Thunder would face the Houston Rockets in the first round.

Many were expecting Westbrook to take a leap in production this season with Kevin Durant no longer on the team, but it would have been hard to project he’d perform at this level for the entire season. Given his remarkable season, he has played himself into the Most Valuable Player conversation.

It seems as though it’s a two-man race at this point between Westbrook and James Harden for the award (with all due respect to LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard). If Westbrook can average a triple-double for the entire season, it may be hard for voters to leave him off of their ballots. Harden is averaging 29.3 points, 11.4 assists and eight rebounds per game, though, and his Rockets are in third place in the Western Conference.

As impressive as his season has been, Westbrook as MVP isn’t necessarily unanimous. He has been accused by some this season of chasing triple-doubles and padding his stats throughout games which has opened up the conversation for Harden.

Jason Kidd explained Westbrook’s run perfectly at the beginning of the season. Kidd, who is third all-time in triple-doubles, said by accomplishing these triple-doubles, Westbrook is putting his team in a position to win games. The Thunder are 31-7 this season when Westbrook records a triple-double.

So, which player should really win MVP? The answer may be right in front of you.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#16 – Zhaire Smith- Phoenix Suns

Jesse Blancarte

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The Philadelphia 76ers reportedly traded the rights to Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns for the 16th overall pick, which was used to select Zhaire Smith, as well as a 2021 first round draft pick.

Smith was a freshman small forward out of Texas Tech who has plenty of athleticism. Last season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, five rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. Where Smith stands out is on the defensive end. He has the size, speed, mobility and instincts to be a plus-defender, which is rare among players at this stage in their respective careers. The downside is that Smith doesn’t necessarily have the size to reasonably guard most power forwards, though he can certainly hold his own in limited situations.

Smith should be a nice addition for the 76ers, which have several big wing players. The team is built around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but Smith adds even more athleticism and upside for the young up-and-coming squad. Smith is also a solid passer and he can take the ball off of the dribble. However, Smith’s jumper can be a bit inconsistent at times, which is something he will need to work on moving forward.

This is a nice grab for the 76ers, who saved some cap space and acquired a future first rounder in the deal.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#14 – Michael Porter Jr. – Denver Nuggets

Matt John

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With the No. 14 pick in the NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets selected forward Michael Porter Jr. from the University of Missouri.

Leading up to the draft, there was much speculation that Porter could have gone as high as the second overall pick, but after teams got a look at his medical records, his perceived value began to fall. Porter slid all the way to the Nuggets, who record-wise, were the best team that missed out on the playoffs.

Porter measures in 6-foot-10.75, 211 pounds. The sample size was very small since Porter had to miss the majority of his freshman season, but the potential is definitely there for the Missouri alum. Porter’s scoring prowess makes him have one of the highest ceilings in a loaded draft class this year, which could make him one of the greatest draft-day steals of all time if he reaches it.

If Porter reaches his ceiling, then he is undoubtedly a perfect fit in Denver. The Nuggets, who were arguably a healthy Paul Millsap from making some noise out West, desperately need a go-to scorer to pair with their young core. Porter’s ability to score from anywhere on the court should make him the perfect complement to Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

His ability to put the ball in the bucket should make him a keeper, but his athleticism is what could make him a potential franchise cornerstone. Porter has a fair amount of quickness for a guy his size, which could make him one of the league’s best two-way players.

Unfortunately, Porter’s question marks make him as much of a high risk as he is a high reward. His medical records evidently turned teams off after he was believed to be selected in the top 10, and there has been a lot of chatter that he may not be the most motivated basketball player. Perhaps falling all the way down to 14th could give him all the motivation he needs.

The Nuggets received a lot of flak when they traded Donovan Mitchell’s draft rights for Trey Lyles and the rights to Tyler Lydon at last year’s draft, but now they may have made up for all of that by getting Porter.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#13 – Jerome Robinson – Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers have drafted Jerome Robinson with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

James Blancarte

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After trading for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Los Angeles Clippers selected Boston guard Jerome Robinson with the 13th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Count the Clippers among lottery teams that passed on Michael Porter, Jr. and looked elsewhere. Robinson is versatile guard thatcan score from all over the court. Robinson can score from the outside and has a strong handle allowing him to play either guard position. Robinson put up 20.7 points and 3.3 assists per game and 40.9 percent from three-point range. Like any standout scorer, Robinson can score from distance and around the rim. While he can score at a high level, Robinson is not known for his defensive abilities and will need to improve in this area to be a true impact player at the next level.

Robinson is a bit undersized (listed around 6-foot-5) to play the small forward position. However, the Clippers, under Doc Rivers, have never been shy about using undersized wings at the small forward. For example, the team has gotten away with playing Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford at small forward over the years. According to reports, the team may have already decided to move on from guard Milos Teodisic making Robinson a capable player offensive player to place besides defensively minded point guard Patrick Beverley.

 

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