The Houston Rockets matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday had a little bit more to it than two Western Conference teams battling for seeding.
It was the first time this season that Ja Morant would face Russell Westbrook. Morant was scouted, and is still looked upon, as the next explosive, uber-athletic point guard of the NBA — i.e. the next Westbrook. And maybe it’s a case of making your own destiny, but Westbrook was also Morant’s favorite player growing up — yes, he’s very young.
It was a battle of the superstar that is and one that is yet to be (but will be very soon).
It wasn’t the most fair face-off to draw comparisons from, though. Westbrook and James Harden each dropped 30+ points in a game where the Rockets dominated mightily. Westbrook led all scorers with 33 points to go along with his traditional stat-stuffing nine assists and eight rebounds on 15-of-24 shooting — one of his most immaculate games this season. And while Westbrook has really looked like Westbrook all of 2020, it was a game that very much solidified that the superhuman, crazy-athlete version of him is back. All night, he got to the rim at will, flawlessly dropped mid-range shots, and looked so fast and so bouncy with an impeccable touch around the rim.
Beard and Brodie combine for 63pts in the win! pic.twitter.com/6fcEyRQd1T— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) February 27, 2020
Morant (12 points, nine assists) had this to say after his first matchup with his childhood idol:
“I still feel like he’s highly disrespected. People take his play for granted. I mean, he averaged a triple-double for the last three or four years, and I’m pretty sure they see what he’s doing this year, but it’s still the same thing. I just love that he still just goes out and plays and handles his business and doesn’t worry about it.”
Morant has a point too. When it was announced that Westbrook would be joining his good friend and fellow high-volume shooter, Harden, in a trade this offseason, he became the butt of many jokes. A player that was once revered for his incredible work ethic and basketball gifts had become a meme due to his early-season struggles.
Now what looks to be fully healthy and running a system built for him to succeed, Westbrook has dominated 2020. Since the start of the new year, the 2017 MVP has averaged 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, and 7.8 rebounds in 18 games, all on 53% shooting and taking only 2.3 three-pointers a game. With the Rockets at 6-1 in February and Westbrook averaging basically those exact numbers, he has a real shot at player of the month.
While it wouldn’t be fair to say that a player who averaged a triple-double last year is having a revitalization this year, it’s what people have definitely made it feel like.
The irony isn’t lost on Rockets fans either, or at least it shouldn’t be. Since the ‘16-’17 season, Westbrook was made Harden’s rival by their respective fans. Westbrook, essentially up until February, was still being heavily criticized by fans of his very team, the same team that harbored his best friend and a player who faced similar criticism in Harden.
In hindsight, it can be easy to see that a lot of the animosity comes from the fact that these players are your team’s direct competition, or maybe they’re not in a situation where you can really love them — it took Chris Paul joining a rag-tag team of young players for people to finally appreciate him. But it’s something special to see a revered young player go against his favorite athlete and say, “he’s not getting the love he deserves.” Hopefully, that’ll teach us to still appreciate greatness while we can, even if they are the ones standing in the way.
As for Westbrook, in typical fashion, he had this to say about critics of his game.
“I don’t really care what nobody else thinks about my game. I appreciate guys like [Morant] and other guys, but as long as I’m OK and satisfied with what I bring to the table, I’m going to keep busting everybody’s ass.”