The NBA entered its final night of the regular season with more uncertainty than usual — only five teams were locked into their playoff seed, and two squads met in a do-or-die matchup.
But one thing you could have booked heading into the Oklahoma City Thunder’s game with the lowly Memphis Grizzlies: Russell Westbrook was gonna snag 16 rebounds, the amount he needed to average a triple-double for the second consecutive year.
Not only is Westbrook obsessed with notching double-digits in points, rebounds, and assists, but before the game he got out ahead of the backlash he knew he’d hear about padding his stats against one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Russell Westbrook on his rebounding: “A lot of people make jokes about stat padding rebounds. If people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could get f****** 15 rebounds, they would.” pic.twitter.com/uwUrNXlLUy
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 11, 2018
Funny he specifically mentioned 20 rebounds, because that’s exactly how many he secured in his Thunder’s 137-123 win over the Grizzlies.
There are plenty of valid criticisms of Westbrook’s pursuit of rebounds, particularly that it comes at the expense of defense. Despite defending perimeter players exclusively, Westbrook only defended 3.3 three-pointers per game in 2017-18 (according to NBA.com), an embarrassingly low number (Jrue Holiday led the league at 6.5), as a result of his leaving his assignment wide open in pursuit of rebounds in the paint. His own center, Steven Adams — whose primary purpose on defense is to protect the paint and not the three-point line — contested more deep balls per game (4.3), as did fellow big men Anthony Davis, Al Horford, Willie Cauley-Stein, and the slow-footed Frank Kaminsky. In 2016-17, Kaminsky, Davis, Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tristan Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins defended more three balls per game than Westbrook.
But on the last night of the season, so long as it doesn’t cost the team anything (and against the Grizzlies, that’s almost impossible), who cares? Westbrook’s far from the first player to use the regular season finale to make his Basketball Reference page look better — in 1994, San Antonio Spurs head coach John Lucas forced his players to feed David Robinson, who needed 68 points for the scoring title, and he got there with 71; on Tuesday night, Klay Thompson needed 22 points in a meaningless game to get his season average over 20 per game, and the team let him hoist, poorly (9-of-27), until he notched 23, then pulled him out; and let’s not forget the last game of Kobe Bryant’s career.
There are a lot of things to dislike about Westbrook’s stat padding, but his performance on Wednesday night isn’t one of them.