Staples Center was struck by a force of nature Wednesday night.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have played only four games, but you can already sense their polarizing shoot-first All-Star point guard is in the early stages of the kind of season that will push the boundaries of our imaginations.
Though Kevin Durant’s departure to the Golden State Warriors destabilized the Thunder’s foundation, it also liberated Westbrook from demands that he exercise restraint in deference to a more decorated teammate.
If LeBron James remains the NBA’s best player, Westbrook is the league’s top showman, his breathtaking solo performances resulting in averages of 37.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10 assists for the undefeated Thunder.
The 35 points Westbrook scored in an 85-83 victory were a side note. The real story was how he scored them.
He was don’t-get-out-of-your-seat-when-he’s-in-the-game electric.
He blew past the Clippers. He soared over them. He outran them and he outmuscled them.
“He gets the ball off a rebound, if you don’t have at least three people back … two aren’t enough, I will say that,” Felton said.
Midway through the third quarter, he exploded by Luc Mbah a Moute, who drew the unfortunate assignment of guarding him for most of the game.
Before center DeAndre Jordan could react, Westbrook was unleashing a violent one-handed dunk.
The crowd buzzed. Even Clippers owner Steve Ballmer could be seen laughing at his courtside seat.
“He plays with great passion, great energy, great joy, even though it looks like anger. But it’s great joy,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s actually fun to watch, not that fun to go up against, obviously, but you love how he plays.”
At a time when many of the NBA’s top players are drawn to the idea of being part of super teams — Durant’s move to the Warriors was the latest example — Westbrook is something of a throwback to old-school individuality. He passed on the opportunity to become a free agent at the end of the season, as he signed a three-year extension with the Thunder over the summer. (So much for the idea of seeing him in a Lakers uniform anytime soon.)
Westbrook’s individual streak is what made him the subject of criticism when he played alongside Durant.
Now, if Westbrook elects to shoot instead of pass, no one complains. If anything, that’s what now is expected.
The Thunder are unbeaten because — and only because — of Westbrook.
Westbrook is flourishing under the added responsibility. His jumper with 18.7 seconds remaining sealed the victory over the Clippers.
“He’s just doing it all by himself,” Felton said.
Westbrook averaged 38.7 points in the Thunder’s previous three victories, including 51 points in an overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns in which his team erased an 18-point deficit.
“If we’ve got to have him shoot 40, 44 times to be successful, I don’t think that’s going to work over the long haul,” Thunder Coach Billy Donovan said.
Still, is production like this sustainable over an 82-game schedule?
“I think it is for him,” Rivers said. “I don’t think Russell plays any different any night.
“I don’t see Russell ever not playing at the energy level that he plays.
“It’s how he plays. It’s part of his talent. It’s a gift.”
Rivers said Westbrook is particularly difficult to defend against because he is a point guard.
There’s nothing the Clippers could do to prevent him from touching the basketball.
The coach pointed out how when opposing teams effectively trapped Michael Jordan early in his career, then-Bulls coach Doug Collins moved Jordan to point guard.
“It was really difficult to deal with that because he already had the ball,” Rivers said. “That’s the situation with Russ a lot.”
Unfortunately, Westbrook isn’t nearly as colorful off the court as he is on it.
“I’m happy that we’re winning, man,” he said. “All I care about is winning, regardless of what the numbers look like.”
The Thunder have a highly anticipated Friday showdown with the Warriors, but Westbrook barely addressed it.
“I play every game like it’s my last,” he said. “Regardless of who we play, I’m going to play the same way.”
Nor would he speak about his relationship with Durant, which has become a small-market, passive-aggressive version of the Kobe-and-Shaq rift.
“I’m not answering any more Kevin questions,” he said.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez