He’s unique. He has a lot of energy. He plays hard all the time and he’s hard to guard. —Jazz guard Ricky Rubio on Russell Westbrook
OKLAHOMA CITY — Like almost everything Russell Westbrook does, the move was over the top. The first basket of Sunday’s Jazz-Thunder game ended in a breakaway dunk. He howled and flexed, as if the game were already decided.
That didn’t change the score. In fact, the Jazz immediately tallied 11 straight points.
Later, after backing down Ricky Rubio and banking a mid-range jumper, he looked to the sideline and could be seen mouthing the words, “He’s too (expletive) small.”
That’s where people have a problem with the Oklahoma City guard. He’s good for TV ratings and great for OKC fans and the team.
To everyone else, he’s nails on a chalkboard.
Yet Jazz fans watching from afar should look beyond that when the teams meet Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and even more so when the series moves to Utah. There won’t be another player like him for, oh, a half century. It’s been that long and more since Oscar Robertson’s historic triple-double season in 1961-62.
Westbrook has done it the last two years.
Focusing on Westbrook the personality, instead of Westbrook the player, is to miss something worthwhile.
“He’s unique,” Rubio said. “He has a lot of energy. He plays hard all the time and he’s hard to guard.”
No kidding. He’s the first player ever to average a triple-double twice, and the only player to complete a triple-double against every team in the league. His 104 triple-doubles are more than the entire history of 24 of the 29 other teams.
He’s also one of the few players to let things get personal with a local columnist.
In 2015, Westbrook singled out legendary Oklahoman writer Berry Tramel during a postgame group interview. Westbrook had been answering every question with, “We did a good job of executing.”
When Tramel asked if something was bothering him, Westbrook said, “I don’t like you,” and repeated it a few seconds later.
There are a lot of things to dislike about Westbrook, if you’re looking. He celebrates himself too soon and too often. He shoots when his mood tells him, leading to inefficiency. Against the Jazz he had 29 points, but made a modest 10 of 25 shots. Yet he got to the free-throw line nine times, making every attempt, and finished just two assists shy of another triple-double.
“We know he’s going to score,” Rubio said. “But we want him to score with as many shots as we can make him take.”
The story of the game was Paul George, who had 36 points on 13-for-20 shooting, including 8 of 11 from 3-point range. Westbrook was 0 for 4 from the 3-point line. Still, that’s nitpicking. What NBA coach wouldn’t love having the irrepressible Westbrook on his team, mood swings and all?
Which is why Jazz fans should pay attention. Westbrook comes on like a big rig on the westbound to Texas. Late in games when others tire, he’s still ferociously dunking. With him you get what you pay for.
Thrills per dollar, it’s a bargain.
What you see of Westbrook outside the games is even worth charging admission. His wardrobe may include a rose-covered sweatshirt, a skinny suit with a bare chest, or a throwback corduroy sport coat and turtleneck. Yes, a turtleneck.
He owns all of his looks, just like he owns every phase of his game.
In March, as he approached the triple-double record, he donned a T-shirt listing each of his 42 triple-doubles last year, under the title “Why Not? Tour 2016-17.”
Yet his flamboyance often dies in postgame interviews. Sometimes he’s smoldering or combative, other times disinterested. When someone on Sunday asked if there were adjustments made on Donovan Mitchell, he replied, “Yeah. We just came out and competed and both teams played hard.”
Is something bothering you?
The media and public may get shorted on his postgame delivery, but for 48 minutes of game time, it’s always a show. Maybe even worth the high price of the ticket. Definitely worth the price of noticing.