All hail Russell Westbrook, the NBA's face-melting meteor

All hail Russell Westbrook, the NBA's face-melting meteor

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He’s Jimmy Page’s spine-boiling guitar break at the two-minute mark of “Heartbreaker.” He’s the world’s spiciest pepper, dipped in hot sauce, rolled in cayenne pepper and shoved into your eye socket.

He’s Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s incendiary guard — and lately he’s the most magnetic reason to watch an NBA season overstocked with compelling storylines.

Westbrook just wrapped up one of the most impressive months in NBA history, putting up February averages of 31.2 points, 10.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds per game. He’s the first to average such numbers for an entire month since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson did it decades ago. Toss in three 40-plus point games, three games of 30-plus and a three consecutive triple doubles to close out February.

Oh, and he also won the All-Star game’s MVP award on Feb. 15 after going off for 41 points at Madison Square Garden. Only Wilt Chamberlain has scored more in an All-Star game. Two of Westbrook’s points that day came via a dunk in which he exploded so far off the hardwood that he hit his head on the backboard:

The stank-face he made afterward? Quintessential Westbrook. That play, perhaps more than any, encapsulates Westbrook’s appeal. Mere numbers do no justice to the joy of watching him play; Russell Westbrook is not a player for linear thinkers.

Here was an All-Star game, an exhibition where most players seem eager to simply go through the motions to while avoiding injury for the season’s stretch run remains. But there was Westbrook, leaping to one-hand an alley-oop with such ferocity that he quite nearly decapitated himself right there in front of the celebrities at Madison Square Garden.

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Stephen Curry is the NBA’s everyman savant, the guy an amateur’s body but a wizard’s skill. Kevin Durant is the NBA’s lab creation, a player whose combination of size and talent could only have been created by a scientist with a basketball jones. LeBron James is the force of nature, the NFL tight end cut from granite who decided to try his hand at becoming the greatest basketball player of all time.

Westbrook? He’s simply aggression personified, warped to an almost demented level of competitive abandon.

Where that fire comes from is something of a mystery. It could be that he was an unranked high school recruit. It could be that many pundits expressed doubt when the Thunder picked him fourth out of UCLA in the 2008 NBA Draft. Maybe it comes from a source even he would struggle to pinpoint with precision.

Much of Westbrook’s recent virtuosity has been spurred by necessity; the Thunder have been without Durant, his superstar co-headliner. With the team fighting desperately for a playoff berth, that’s forced Westbrook to drag the rest of his teammates through the treacherous Western Conference solo for much of the year.

Before the season, there was a meme going around. It came from Durant’s memorable NBA MVP speech last year and showed Westbrook lustily eyeing his teammate’s new hardware.

WestbrookMeme

The meme was funny. It’s still funny. But it’s also perfect — no other player possesses the feral power and gonzo style encapsulated by Westbrook’s ravenous gaze. He’s been an incendiary meteor this past month, streaking across the starry sky of our basketball fandom.

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But that’s the thing with meteors: Eventually they explode; either that or simply fade away. The latter, illogically, doesn’t even seem an option right now; it’s impossible to imagine this man getting tired. The only thing that can currently stop Westbrook? Injury. Yet with 2015 Russell Westbrook, even that comes intensified to almost farcical proportions.

With seconds left in Oklahoma City’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night — a game in which he put up 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists — Westbrook took a knee to the head from teammate Andre Roberson:

But this is Russell Westbrook we’re talking about! He didn’t simply writhe around in pain on the ground like mere mortals would. No, he got up from the floor and stayed on the court for the game’s final couple plays while sporting — wait for it — a visible dent in the side of his face.

WestDent

Um …

Image: Don Ryan/Associated Press

The striking visual prompted this bit of Internet, which was perfect in every way:

So where does the injury leave us with Westbrook, the NBA’s most irresistible current attraction? He had surgery on Saturday, missed the Thunder’s game on Sunday and will likely be evaluated again before the team’s next game, which comes on Wednesday.

But the face-dent isn’t thought to be too serious (a sentence that only makes sense when it concerns a precious few humans on Earth, Westbrook among them); he reportedly could have played Sunday, had it been a more important game.

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In short: We don’t know just when Russell Westbrook will return — only that he can’t get back soon enough.

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