The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday night, 126-121, bringing OKC's losing streak to a season-high-tying four games. But some defeats are only backdrops for more significant stories of human valor. Russell Westbrook, cosmic force and very possible MVP, spent the night doing his best to stave off the loss, and though he didn't succeed, he did set a new career high with 58 points. For the Thunder, his performance was cold comfort; for the Blazers (the, um, 27-35 Blazers), it provided an opportunity to lob passive-aggressive shots about teamwork. For everyone else, it was another chance to see Russ at his Russ-iest.
Westbrook went at Portland with such persistence that it's hard to pick out specific highlights. What's the most important gallon in a tsunami? On successive trips late in the first half, Al-Farouq Aminu—a player so prized for his defense that he gets away with shooting like a catapult built by fourth-graders—matched up with Westbrook, and both times Westbrook scored: first with a vertigo-inducing crossover-stepback combo, then with a forearm-to-the-belly floater.
In the third, he blew past Damian Lillard and made the layup before help defenders could take a step, giving 16 straight OKC points. Midway through the fourth, with the Thunder trying to come back from a nine-point deficit, he caught an outlet pass in the backcourt, got to the rim in three dribbles, and, flying to his right, reached back with his left hand to roll the ball over the rim.
Between these standouts came barrages of the famous Westbrook pull-up and plenty of pick-and-roll dimes; even while chucking 39 times, he found room for nine assists. He slowed in the fourth quarter, though, hitting only six of 15 attempts and missing a string of potentially outcome-changing shots. "Yeah, I just missed them," Westbrook said afterwards. "Made them all game."
The Blazers, and specifically Meyers Leonard, had an annoyingly different perspective. "He's incredible," Leonard said. "With that being said, sometimes, it becomes a one-man show.... I think it's to our credit, from top to bottom, that we had a lot of guys contribute." (Leonard gets six points and three boards a game, so you can understand why he might value his teammates' help.) "We believed in each other, and that was key."
The career high, the outcome, and the chatter turned the game into a kind of Westbrook Rorschach test. It's MVP season, so his audacious stats are put next to the performances of James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard, and scrutinized for inflation. Is his volume coming at the expense of efficiency? Are his totals coming at the expense of wins? This is an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the NBA calendar: March is for nitpicking.
While pundits and opposing players mull over the implications of Westbrook's historic season, he'll still be going at it. Tuesday night might have been a laying-out of the discourse around the league's most exciting player, but it was also a summary. Everyone else can talk; Westbrook won't stop.