During a recent media session, Russell Westbrook revealed that he lined up at both linebacker and running back during his time as a youth football player. He said he preferred playing linebacker due to his supremely predictable fondness for contact.
No one who has ever seen Westbrook play basketball is surprised at his love of "hitting people" on the football field, but his preference of linebacker over running back is at a bit ironic. As I watched the Thunder’s heartbreaking loss to Golden State on Saturday - and the growth that Westbrook demonstrated in overtime - I realized that elite workhorse running backs, perhaps more than any other players at any position in sports, are the most natural comparison for the athletic conundrum that is Russell Westbrook.
Watching Westbrook at his best is no different than watching the Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson at his best. It’s not the chunks of positive yardage over the course of the game that makes Adrian Peterson so exciting to watch – it’s the palpable sense of expectation. It’s the inevitable feeling that every small gain is ramping up to the inevitable explosion. Similarly, even some of Westbrook’s most impactful performances are not always pretty. There is a certain grind to watching him shoot 40% with 5 turnovers, even if you know it’s also leading to 30 points and 12 assists. Committing to running the football with a franchise back is no different than committing to Westbrook: the 2- and 3-yard losses will come. But so will the game-breaker.
What has come to hurt Westbrook’s reputation as a clutch player, though, is that – like a franchise running back – neither Westbrook’s skillset or brand of dominance are conducive to executing in a given single expected moment. One doesn’t really get to choose when lightning strikes – you just know that, over the course of a storm, it is going to happen.
If Stephen Curry is a painter whose final shot against the Thunder was the last detail added to an intricate portrait, Westbrook is the guy who painted an entire wall with a roller. Nothing – the good, the bad – is left out. Westbrook’s play can only be described as Relentless Completeness. Russell doesn’t carry a brush that he sets aside for a late game out-of-bounds masterpieces – he just does the same thing on those plays that he does on every other play. It is, of course, the late game plays that come under the microscope the most, but if we really want to recognize the all-time greatness of Russell Westbrook, it’s more important to take a step back and look at the entire wall.
How you feel about his stat line as a whole on Saturday night probably depends on how you feel about Westbrook in general. He had 26 points, 13 assists, 7 rebounds, and 2 steels – basically, his average game in a season that those under 50 years old have never seen before. But he also had 7 turnovers and shot 10-29. His impact overall, though, was undeniable, Stephen Curry’s unbelievable game winner was only made necessary because of Westbrook’s incredible energy and force as a playmaker after Kevin Durant fouled out.
The overtime period, particularly after Durant left the game, demonstrated just how far Russell Westbrook has come as a leader and as a – gasp – pure point guard. Even two years ago, is there any doubt that Westbrook is putting up nearly every shot from the second that Durant walks off the court? Instead, the new and improved Westbrook continuously used his ability to get in the lane to set up teammates. In overtime, Westbrook had 3 assists and also got to the line to hit a pair of free throws. Westbrook did miss some shots – including the one that lead to Curry’s winner – but his play overall was drastically different than it has been in similar situations of seasons’ past.
Franchise running backs can carry teams to the Super Bowl, even if their impact doesn’t always come in the final minutes of the game. Is this not the sporting comparison to Russell Westbrook that we have long searched for? It’s as if it took us so long to figure out that Russell Westbrook is a superstar pure point guard that by the time we did, we realized that the term "pure point guard" was never enough. Russell Westbrook is the Workhorse Point Guard. Westbrook's nickname isn’t "All Day" only because Adrian Peterson already took it first. And the next time Russ takes a last second shot, maybe he’ll make it, and maybe he won’t. The opponent will be relieved either way. Whether they win or not, they’ll just be tired of dealing with basketball’s only Workhorse Point Guard.