OKLAHOMA CITY -- When Russell Westbrook breaks into the open court, it's the kind of heart-stopping, hold-your-breath, what's-he-gonna-do-here moment that has few rivals in sports.
You see it happening, right when he decides to turn on the jets, that split second before the acceleration kicks in. He drops his jaw -- and hesitates for a brief instant -- processing the floor in front of him, like a running back timing his steps to hit the hole at full tilt. Westbrook in the open floor is Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson, a downhill runner who charges at defenders like a bull seeing red.
"If somebody's back-peddling," Westbrook said, "then you're in trouble."
There are a lot of things that make Westbrook a rare NBA creature, but one of the most uncommon traits is his ability to be a one-man fast break. He can go from defensive rebounding to dunking in close to three seconds. He'll outleap an opposing 6-foot-10 power forward -- or sometimes even his own big men -- snare the ball, and off he goes in a sprint. Every time he does it, it's jarring to see: a how-is-that-possible kind of thing.
"Doesn't surprise me, mate," Steven Adams said. "He's a freak. Steals my boards."
And while it may look like he's stealing rebounds for stats (Adams was joking, by the way), it is by design. From studying film over the summer, Westbrook discovered that when he rebounds, it often leads to instant Thunder offense. It cuts out the middle man.
"It makes our team faster," Westbrook said.
He's his own outlet pass, and when the floor gets unbalanced with defenders rocked on their heels, Westbrook is lethal.
"First time in practice seeing him [do that], I was like, 'What the -- this is ridiculous,'" Adams said. "But now it's just like, 'That's Russ.'
"Just like, 'meh.' Another day."
Westbrook has become the league's best rebounding guard, and not by accident. His rebounding methodology is straightforward: Go get the ball. Just jump, then jump again, then jump again if you have to. Westbrook has made a career out of trying a little bit harder than everybody else. With rebounding being as much about want-to as it is about positioning and skill, Westbrook is a natural.
And it's not like there's an agreement between him and his bigs about who gets boards. It's first come, first serve, and Westbrook tries to make sure he's at the front of the line.
"There's no understanding," Westbrook said. "You've just got to want it. There's no understanding. I just play, man. If the rebound's in the air, I jump and go get it. If I'm there, that's it."
Last season, with Kevin Durant sidelined for 55 games, Westbrook erupted as the NBA's triple-double master, a nightly statistical terror who stuffed the box score enough to put his name alongside the likes of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He was uncaged, free to use almost 45 percent of the Thunder's possessions. The feeling was, though, with Durant back, that usage would calm down some as the two had to re-adapt to divvying up possessions again.
Instead, the opposite has happened. Westbrook's usage rate has dipped, but his production has soared. He put up his 15th -- 15th! -- triple-double on Tuesday, putting him only two back of tying Johnson for the most in a season over the past 30 years. And Westbrook doesn't settle just for double-digits in three categories. Like most other things, he tries to blow the door off them. In his 15 triple-doubles, he's averaging 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 13.1 assists. It's not as if he's scraping by.
"He's a very, very rare guy," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said early in the season, "because in my opinion, if he never took a shot, he could still dominate a game. He can rebound, he can assist it, he can defend. He can do anything."
This is the shadow Stephen Curry has cast this season. It's not the soaring 30-footers. It's not even the 40-footers, or the way he's changing the way we watch and play basketball.
Because Curry has been so relentlessly fantastic this season -- along with his team -- a guy who has put up the most triple-doubles in the past 25 years seems to be a footnote right now. If not for Curry, Westbrook would be a front-runner for MVP. Instead, there isn't even a conversation. It's been settled, leaving Westbrook and the rest of the league to compete for who gets second place.
That doesn't mean Westbrook's accomplishments are any less staggering. He does everything fast -- except when he's meticulously getting dressed after games -- and the fact that he seems to race to put up numbers isn't surprising. He has had three triple-doubles this season in less than 30 minutes. The rest of the NBA has two.
"He's always engaged in the game. He's got an incredible fire to him, an incredible competitiveness to him, and he's able to play that hard," Donovan said. "He's a really unique, unique player. I love being around him every day.
"His will to chase it physically every single possession is just remarkable."
The "how" to Westbrook's ability to consistently stuff the stat sheet isn't complicated. It starts with him being a generational talent, and ends with an unyielding desire to outwork everyone else on the court. Westbrook never cruises.
For the Thunder, that's a good thing. Westbrook at full-throttle, glass-crashing, triple-double mode isn't for show. Westbrook's individual stats don't supersede the team's success: The Thunder are 15-0 when he gets one.