Before pouring in 21 first quarter points in a Wednesday night win over the Warriors, Russell Westbrook Popovich’d a reporter who asked him how he was approaching the defending champs. The journo was forced to answer his own bad question—”you play every game the same way”—because it’s already such an ingrained part of the Westbrook lore. But the point was made, even if the reporter said it for him: Russ destroys anyone he’s matched up against, regardless of who it might be.
And while it’s true Westbrook goes hard all the time, when he’s facing his old MVP running mate in the Bay, or any top player (particularly the starting Western backcourt of Steph Curry and James Harden), Russ wants to cut their heart out—like Magua did to Col. Munro—and hold it up for the world to see. It’s one reason he’ll finish his career as the greatest NBA All-Star of all time.
Another stems from the All-Star Game itself. It’s a joke these days. The defense––or lack thereof––makes Friday night’s celebrity game feel like a life-or-death Colosseum contest in comparison. There hasn’t been any discernible defense in the All-Star Game since the last time Staples Center hosted the event in 2011 (and even that’s a stretch). That’s the year Why Not Westbrook’s equally-as-psychotic peer, Kobe Bryant, took home the final of his four All-Star MVPs.
Last February’s frictionless clash is why this year’s demanded such a dramatic change. The playground-style picks (made, sadly, on a private conference call) came about after NBPA president Chris Paul watched last year’s game injured at home. Reportedly, he was so struck by the nonchalance in the 192-182 laughfest, he huddled with a relieved (because he didn’t have to bring it up himself) Adam Silver and an annoyed Michael Jordan, to come up with the changes that would ostensibly make it competitive again.
Similar to 2013 All-Star MVP CP3, the aforementioned Kobe, and three-time winner MJ, the current laissez-faire approach to the All-Star Game runs counter to the cutthroat Westbrook. We know Russ cares, even if he pretends like he doesn’t. The NBA All-Star Game is an exhibition, but it’s also a way for Russ to measure himself against the best players in the world.
OKC’s triple-double machine oozes confidence, and it’s clear he thinks of himself as the best player in the world. That’s part of his charm. But unlike his peers, he’s willing to prove that belief even if everyone around him is just trying to sweat out the previous night’s cocktails. To Charles Barkley, Russ is just one of the “fools in the All-Star Game whose going for the MVP.” But that’s also why, when his career finally finishes, Brodie will go down as the best NBA All-Star.
None of his brashness would matter if he didn’t have the game to back it up. And not just any game, but the kind that thrives on All-Star Sunday.
When Russell’s mid-range “cotton shot” shushes through NBA nylon, he’s unguardable. That’s what happened in the first quarter against Golden State last week, when he hit three mid-range jumpers on his first three attempts and OKC cruised to a blowout victory. He’s so difficult to keep out of the paint, the only leverage a defender has is to give him a wide berth when he’s got the rock, and bait him into jumpers. If that cotton shot is falling like it did when he was practicing it as a boy in LA, where this year’s All-Star Game takes place, there is no deadlier offensive weapon in the world.
His jumper was falling in 2015 and 2016 when he became the first player since Bob Pettit in 1958-59 to win consecutive All-Star Game MVP awards. But jumpers alone don’t win MVP awards. Fortunately for Russ, rims quiver in trepidation when he accelerates at mid-court and beats the first defender. His dunking dynamism is an added boost to his All-Star Game legacy. Finally, no one has the Mamba mentality quite like Russ. He attempted an NBA-high 78 shots over his last three All-Star games––even counting Anthony Davis’ NBA-record 39 attempts in clinching last season’s All-Star MVP. Westbrook’s game meshes perfectly with the annual exhibition.
No one has the Mamba mentality quite like Russ, but that alliterative phrase, Mamba mentality, calls to mind, Kobe––and Bean’s own basketball mentor, Jordan.
How is Russ a better all-star than Bean or MJ? Believe it or not, Westbrook shoots more during the all-star game, and at a higher efficiency––especially beyond the 3-point arc. Westbrook trails only George Mikan (the SHAQ of the 1950s), in shot attempts per all-star game at 19.8. He’s connected on 56.3 percent of those attempts, too. By comparison. MJ averaged 17.9 shot attempts per game, and connected on just 47.2 percent of them (including an abysmal 27.3 percent on less than one 3-point attempt per game). Kobe––despite his record 4 MVP awards––averaged even fewer shot attempts, 15.9, and connected on 50 percent of them. Kobe, who has a more modern offensive repertoire than MJ, shot 32.4 percent on four and a half 3-point attempts per all-star game. Russ averages 7.8 triples during the exhibition and he’s hit an absurd 42.6 percent of them. The numbers prove he’s a better shooter than both, on more attempts.
So when the 2018 NBA All-Star Game tips Sunday, Russell Westbrook will be the best player on the court. Even if he’s not the best player.