The 2016-17 NBA season was far and away the best season of Thunder legend Russell Westbrook’s Hall of Fame career and while he has still had some incredible moments since then, he has not quite done anything like what he did that year.
After Kevin Durant ditched him for the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook went no holds barred on the entire league, breaking record after record, hitting game winner after game winner and dropping triple-double after triple-double.
It was nothing short of a magical year and with the struggles Russ has faced in Lakerland these past two seasons, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at one of the craziest performances produced by one of the craziest players in Thunder history.
It was the 74th game of the season and the Thunder sat at 42-31 on the season, good for sixth in the west and trailing the fourth-seeded Jazz by only three games. The Thunder were looking to make a late run to secure home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
In an absolutely thrilling overtime victory against the Magic after being down by 21 points in the third quarter, Westbrook posted an absurd stat line that featured 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.
Now, what if I told you these three numbers were not even the most impressive part of his night? It was this absolutely dazzling 31-footer fading to his right to tie the game up at 102 a piece with 7.1 seconds left on the clock. The latest in a long line of clutch shots from Russ that season.
Let’s take a look at how Westbrook produced one of the best performances of his career.
In good ol’ days, Russ had the midrange ‘cotton shot’ in his bag and was a huge threat to knock it down effortlessly if you gave him an inch of space. The threat of Russ’ driving capabilities was also ever-present in the mind of his match-up.
They knew that if they played slightly too tight, Russ would blow by them for a finish at the rim. Russ could always smell their fear and he used that anticipation to his advantage. The slightest backpedal when Russ had the ball at the elbow meant he was immediately letting fly and cashing in.
Here he catches it on the left elbow and faces up on Terrence Ross. Ross sets himself on the back foot expecting a lightning-quick attack on the rim. Westbrook recognises this and counters with a floating, gravity-defying mid-range jumper.
Westbrook has always been a subpar outside shooter, even back in his younger days, but during 2017 a temporary intermission was placed on his inability to hit a three. This game saw him hit six threes, including this one that awarded him his 21st point of the first half.
If he were to shoot this shot today, nobody would blame you for blowing a gasket, but back in 2017, he hit tough shots from deep on the regular.
This season featured the most athletic point guard of all time at his absolute peak and so dunks like these were most certainly not uncommon. And yet, they never fail to make your jaw drop in amazement.
The double screen from Enes Kanter and Alex Abrines opens up the lane for Westbrook to turn on the jets and explode straight past Elfrid Payton to rock the rim. This dunk had cut the Magic lead from 21 to 13. Westbrook was on a roll and was on his way to leading the Thunder back into the game.
When prime Westbrook got out into transition, it was a death sentence for the opposing team. Ross makes the foolish mistake of staying stationary as Westbrook attacks at full speed, giving him no chance of recovering in time. The 21 point deficit was hacked down to just five with 4:19 remaining in regulation.
Westbrook’s driving game was not solely based upon blowing past the defender with his speed, Russell had a crafted toolbar of moves to get to the cup as well. One of his go-to’s being the euro step. On this possession, Russ drops the ball out in front of him to bait Nikola Vucevic into reaching, almost like he is setting up a sham god move.
Once he gets Vucevic leaning to the right, he gathers the ball and euros into the lane before converting the tough layup over the outstretched arms of the 6’10 center.
I can only imagine how demoralised fans of the opposing teams must have been in 2017, watching Westbrook hit wild threes like this in clutch time. The sort of impossible shots that you know Russell should not be making but somehow is knocking down.
In semi-transition, he tries to attack but the lane is not open, so he pulls it back out and as Aaron Gordon takes a slight step backwards with his right foot to prepare for the incoming Jerami Grant screen, he just lets it fly....and swishes it. 21 points now down to just one. How incredibly clutch was this guy?
With the Thunder down four with 20.9 seconds remaining, a bucket on this possession was crucial if they wanted any hope of pulling out the win here. So as you may have guessed, Westbrook took the game into his own hands.
Wasting no time after the ball was inbounded, he blew past Payton and despite excellent vertical positioning from Vucevic to protect the rim, the acrobatics of Westbrook rendered the defense useless and the game had been brought back to within 2.
After the absurd three that sent the game to overtime and the Thunder subsequently getting a stop on the other end, the game headed into an extra stanza.
With five more minutes to go out and secure the victory, the Magic proved no match for the Thunder as OKC thanks to seven more points from Westbrook. The final buzzer sounded and the Thunder emerged victorious with an eight-point win.
After going down by 21 points with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter, Westbrook made a simple decision. He was going to win this game. Between the moment the Magic took their biggest lead of the night and the final buzzer in overtime, Westbrook scored a whopping 31 points to bring the Thunder home in a remarkable come-from-behind road victory.
His ability to completely and utterly take over a game and turn the tides so drastically in favour of the Thunder was truly remarkable and is a large part of what made his MVP season an absolute joy to watch.
This was his 38th triple-double of the season and his 8th in 10 games. Russ needed 12 triple-doubles in the final 17 games if he were to break Oscar Robertson’s 55-year-old record for most in a single season, nobody would have blamed him if the record was simply too much,
But we all know what happened, don’t we? He got his 12 triple-doubles in the final 17 games and the rest is history.
I urge those of you who may not be a Thunder fan or who may not have been watching basketball during Russ’ MVP season, to do your research on the remarkable player Westbrook was in his prime.
You may gain a newfound appreciation for one of the most exciting and electrifying players to ever step foot on the hardwood. He may not be that same player now, but Russell Westbrook was truly incredible.