ATLANTA — Tuesday was a night that Russell Westbrook, his Thunder teammates, the Hawks and a sellout crowd (allegedly) of 16,739 will never forget.
Westbrook corralled a rebound at the 1:35 mark in the fourth quarter, his tenth of the game, solidifying yet another a triple-double. Several fans inside Philips Arena cheered for the reigning MVP as he reached history.
"It was such a beautiful moment. I am so blessed," Westbrook said. "I never thought I'd even be here. Seeing kids wearing my jersey and wanting to cheer for me still blows my mind. I'm blessed."
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Westbrook is now fourth on the all-time triple-double list with 100, one of only four men to hit the century mark. And Westbrook is in good company — the other three members of the 100 club are some of the best players ever: Jason Kidd (107), Magic Johnson (138) and Oscar Robertson (181), who was the only NBA player to ever average a triple-double over a full season before Westbrook's line last year (31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game).
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Walking into the Thunder locker room prior to tipoff is a bit different than most pregame experiences, and it's a window into Westbrook's soul. Under NBA guidelines, locker rooms are open to the media 90 minutes before the game. Most of the time, there's music blasting, players grazing the spread and tickets being ordered. Typically, you see game film playing on a screen, but it's background viewing.
Not to Westbrook.
There was a group of reporters waiting to talk to players and catch up. However, there was an issue with their placement — the group was blocking Westbrook's view. He gave a meme-worthy glare as if to say, "Whose man is this?"
The group quickly moved. Westbrook chuckled and went back to writing down notes.
"He prepares different than most guys," Thunder forward Paul George said. "All you see him display is the competitiveness, the never giving up. That’s what Russ is. He is a guy that’s never going to give up."
George smiled when he saw the interaction.
"Oh, yeah. We ready to go tonight," George said. "My boy gonna show out because he's ready."
Just 32 points, 12 assists, 12 rebounds, one steal and one block later, Westbrook proved George right.
"That guy is special," George said.
After the game, Thunder coach Billy Donovan was excited to discuss the milestone, calling his point guard "one of the rare guys in this league."
"He can obviously score. However, what makes him special is that he's one of the rare guys that impact the game without taking a shot," Donovan said. "I believe that speaks to his greatness. I think that the fact he's got 100 triple-doubles as a point guard shows how much he has his fingerprints all over the game. It also speaks to how hard he plays. It is really a heck of an accomplishment and an incredible milestone."
During the game, the Hawks threw several defensive coverages at Westbrook and the Thunder. Suffice to say their best efforts were foiled by the guile and athleticism of the seven-time All-Star.
"We really wanted to show him a crowd, show him a lot of bodies," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "At times, I thought he did a good job of it. I thought we were in the right spots and the right places."
It was a well-laid plan — until Carmelo Anthony started hitting shots from deep in the third quarter.
Anthony drilled four 3-pointers in the first five minutes of the third, helping the Thunder quickly overcome what was a 12-point halftime deficit. When Anthony catches fire on those spot-up opportunities, OKC can suddenly jump from a decent scoring unit to an offensive juggernaut.
"Once they started hitting shots it became harder to crowd Westbrook," Budenholzer said. "And once he starts getting penetration he's nearly impossible to stop. He was getting to the rim, then getting to the free throw line. That's why they're a good team. They start putting shooting around him, and he's such a force. A lot of the game, I thought we did a good job, as good as you can do on Westbrook."
Anthony scored 21 points, going 6 for 11 from 3-point range and finishing a game-high plus-31 in the box score. After a win like that, it's easy for Anthony to relish his role in the Westbrook experience.
"First of all, just to be in the presence of that, of him to do what he does on a nightly basis is amazing," Anthony said. "What it takes to do that on a daily basis, the focus that you have to have, the intensity level you have to play with. For me being part of that, be alongside him, like I said, it's a special moment."
As great as the moment was, the Thunder were quick to remember Westbrook's main mission — winning.
"He's getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so," Donovan said. "But winning is the main thing to him and to us. The milestone deserves celebrating because it's been done so few times. Everything he does is for the team to win. It's the main thing for him.
"He impacts the game in so many ways. Very few guys do what he does. Westbrook, on the offensive end, starts with getting shots for other guys. Then, he gets shots for himself. Defensively, he works hard and rebounds to get us extra possessions."
Contrary to what critics may tell you, those triple-doubles aren't just selfish, stat-stuffing efforts. They lead to wins.
The Thunder are 82-18 when Westbrook has a triple-double, including 67-14 in the last three seasons. Over OKC's four-game winning streak, Westbrook is averaging 24.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists, including triple-doubles in his last three outings. The team has jumped to fourth place in the West at 41-29, just a half-game up on the Pelicans and Timberwolves. It might take a few more triple-doubles from Westbrook for the Thunder to secure a slot in the postseason.
But it was worth hitting pause on the playoff race, if only for a brief moment, for Westbrook's coaches and teammates to appreciate the superstar's place in history.
"I think it's something that we should all appreciate," Anthony said. "Appreciate what we have and who we have, especially in a moment like this."