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Russell Westbrook stays with Thunder, where his defiance will be main attraction

Jonathan Raymond writes Russell Westbrook staying with the Oklahoma City Thunder means the basketball world can again enjoy his singularly determined ferocity at its most unrestrained.
Photo: Alonzo Adams / AP Photo; Illustration: Jonathan Raymond / The National
Photo: Alonzo Adams / AP Photo; Illustration: Jonathan Raymond / The National

For a few weeks there at the end of the 2014/15 season, Russell Westbrook raged against the limitations of his sport.

Move the ball. Space the floor. It’s not so much that Westbrook doesn’t ascribe to these tenets of modern basketball orthodoxy, it was just more that he set fire to their formality in that eightish-week stretch.

After the 2015 all-star break, when Kevin Durant was finally ruled out for good with all his injury issues that year, Westbrook took the reins of the Oklahoma City Thunder and tried to drive them into the play-offs with a madman’s determined fury. He scored over 31 points per game after that all-star break. He became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1989 with four consecutive triple-doubles. His Wilt Chamberlain-esque all-around dominance was enough to put him in the MVP discussion, maybe with the most fervent backing.

The explosiveness of his drives. The audacity of his pull-ups. The seeming indignation with which he attacked a rim that had the temerity to stand between him and points. It was Russell Westbrook at his most gloriously unrestrained. It was performance art as much as basketball, a stream-of-conscious physicality the Beats would have appreciated.

That Russell Westbrook once again will have free reign over Oklahoma City.

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The 27-year-old point guard signed a contract extension with the Thunder on Friday, reportedly worth $85.7 million (Dh314.8m) over the next three seasons. For a time it looked inevitable that Westbrook would follow Durant, who you might have heard left for the Golden State Warriors as a free agent this summer, out of Oklahoma City when he reached his own free agency after the 2016/17 season.

Instead, he stays. And the basketball world can again witness the singular exuberance of Russell Westbrook at his most defiant.

To be clear, the Thunder won’t be better next season. Very certainly not. First of all, it goes without saying that it is better to have Kevin Durant than not have Kevin Durant. But second and maybe more importantly, Durant was really only the ever true authority capable of keeping in check Westbrook’s wildest impulses.

For all of the MVP love he got for his one-man heroism at the end of 2014/15, he was actually by most any measure better in 2015/16. Whether you prefer BasketballReference’s win shares measurements (10.6 to 14, and .222 per 48 to .245), or ESPN’s real plus-minus figures (7.08 to 7.85), or plain old shooting percentage (42.6 to 45.4), statistically it is inarguable that Westbrook improved across the board playing next to Durant again last season.

But part of the beauty in Westbrook when he has been unshackled from Durant’s shadow has always been in the ferocity of his will to push the Thunder on. To be everything at all times for Oklahoma City, probing the vulnerabilities of impossible.

What we have seen from Russell Westbrook is that when he is at his best, it is not necessarily the same as him at his most. His most incandescent, most unyielding, most limitless. That that Russell Westbrook is also not necessarily the most efficient or effective Russell Westbrook makes it no less thrilling. The audaciousness, in fact, of Westbrook left to his own self-conviction is as compelling a quality as there is in the NBA.

It is that strain of uber-competitiveness, in the tradition of Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, that is Westbrook’s most endearing feature. With the immediate future of his career settled in Oklahoma City, it will be captivating to see how that drive and passion and self-belief of his come to define both the Thunder’s fortunes and his personal advancement.

Oklahoma City are still a pretty good team. Steven Adams is an excellent and improving young centre. Victor Oladipo is a young, established two-way player with some underappreciated room to still grow. Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, Ersan Ilyasova, Cameron Payne – all are capable of rounding out a solid play-off team.

And with Westbrook locked in, there looms the possibility that next summer, instead of losing their star the Thunder can now conceive of welcoming one with Oklahoma native Blake Griffin a free agent. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to be excited about how he and Westbrook would team up.

But for now Durant leaves and Westbrook stays, to fight it out in his singularly stubborn way.

He was asked about meeting Durant as opponents for the first time next season on Friday. “Like I said before, no game is no bigger, no less, no player, no place,” he said.

“I stand behind that because I play every game like it’s my last.”

That’s what makes Westbrook so irresistible. Every game his last. Him against the world.

And no player in the NBA is as hypnotic in how he can sometimes convince you he can win that battle.

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Updated: August 5, 2016 04:00 AM

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