Before catching a flight back to Southern California late Saturday night, the player who spent high school in Lawndale and college in Westwood threw on a Dodgers cap.
Russell Westbrook’s history is intertwined with Los Angeles. That will continue Wednesday, when the 34-year-old point guard will be at the center of one of the most consequential games between the Clippers and Lakers in recent memory.
With each rival stuck in the muddled morass that is the Western Conference standings, and each desperately attempting to avoid the NBA’s play-in tournament — with its slimmer margin for error than a seven-game first-round series — Westbrook will be the Clippers’ starting point guard as he faces his former team for the first time since the Lakers dealt him at February’s trade deadline.
Westbrook understands the scrutiny that will follow his reunion with the team whose union went from celebrated to sour in a year and a half, but said it would not change how he approaches the game.
“But it’s an important game for us collectively, it’s probably going to be an important game for them as well, so it’s just going to be a big game overall making sure we’re ready to go,” Westbrook said. “My job is to make sure us in the locker room are locked in and ready to compete.”
Russell Westbrook had a season-high 36 points, Robert Covington also had a season best with 27 points and the Clippers beat the Memphis Grizzlies 141-132.
“As the season prolongs, we will figure it out,” Westbrook said at his introductory news conference. “There will be ups and there will be downs.”
His 130-game tenure produced more of the latter than the former. That fit quickly became unwieldy, a player who needed the ball to thrive trying to play alongside James and Davis, two other high-volume scorers. A move to the bench helped, but only after uncomfortable stretches when he often stood in the corner.
His massive salary limited the Lakers’ options for roster upgrades. He clashed with reporters. Every missed shot and defensive gamble became a reminder of the path taken instead of choosing other 2021 trade packages, or holding on to role players from their 2020 title roster who were included in the deal to acquire him.
In February, when James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — only days after James publicly supported efforts to trade for Kyrie Irving, a deal that would have only worked financially if Westbrook was included — it was Westbrook who earned the assist. Westbrook takes pride in his place in NBA history, yet left the arena without commenting on his role in that moment.
Traded in February to Utah, which bought out his contract, Westbrook joined the Clippers and expressed how important it meant to him to be wanted. The team’s stars, Paul George — who had staunchly defended Westbrook, his former Oklahoma City teammate, earlier this season as he struggled with the Lakers — and Kawhi Leonard joined coach Tyronn Lue and members of the front office in pushing for his addition.
“Russ, he figures it out wherever he goes, no matter what’s going on around him, he’s been able to do it for a number of years,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “This team especially, it seems like he’s fitting in well and the guys are embracing him.”
The Clippers approached their partnership with equal parts caution and optimism. Six weeks later, many within the organization have expressed, privately or publicly, that it has gone better than expected, calling the point guard a popular addition in the locker room, if an imperfect solution to pre-existing on-court woes.
“Honestly it’s way better than I thought it would be and he’s fitting in pretty good so far,” center Ivica Zubac said March 6. “He’s a great leader also. He’s very vocal, something we needed.”
One NBA team scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to comment publicly, believed asking Westbrook to be the Lakers’ third-best player wasn’t fair because of the clashing styles of play with James and Davis.
“Asking Russ to be a 3-and-D guy is like asking Wilt [Chamberlain] to be a point guard,” the scout said, adding that with the Clippers it is “same city, lower expectations, less pressure. He is value-added.”
Westbrook made 46% of his two-point shots and 29% of his three-pointers this season as a Laker, and 54% and 32% as a Clipper. He is rebounding less as a Clipper, while his averages for assists, steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls are virtually unchanged.
Yet how he scores has shifted significantly. Fast breaks have accounted for nearly a fifth of Westbrook’s points as a Clipper, nearly double his rate as a Laker. He is also scoring off of turnovers at double his rate as a Laker, an indication one of the Clippers’ goals for Westbrook has been met by giving a slow, aging roster that doesn’t often force turnovers another way to generate points.
So has another. Westbrook is one of the most prideful stars in the league, but upon his arrival, Clippers coaches appealed to his humility. They asked him to avoid pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock, and he has remained noticeably disciplined, even when opponents have purposefully sagged off. Where the Lakers asked Westbrook to set screens with little success — he acted as the roller in pick-and-roll situations 11 times during his season and a half with the Lakers, according to Synergy — he has done it already eight times in 18 games with the Clippers.
“He’s bought into that,” Lue said.
Even the tone of his postgame interviews has changed. Westbrook has taken responsibility for losses; in March, he told a group of reporters, “I like you guys.”
“It’s been great, man,” Westbrook said. “Just been able to kind of figure out guys, kind of allowing me to be myself and help them out and find ways to do that. Obviously our lineup has changed many different times and guys, obviously [George] being out changed a little bit, but for the most part, man, it’s been great thus far in, and thankful and grateful for that.”
One potential problem that didn’t occur came when wing Terance Mann, who joined the starting lineup as the nominal point guard in early January, was moved to the second unit. Mann might have responded brusquely to Westbrook’s arrival as an instant starter in February. Instead, he said Westbrook had helped him “big time” with focusing on a “relentless mentality of the next play is your best play. And I appreciate that from him.”
Westbrook was signed to make George‘s and Leonard’s lives, as well as fourth quarters, easier. In 28 fourth-quarter minutes together, that trio produced a huge net rating of 26.0 — scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions while giving up 85.5.
Westbrook has saved the Clippers with his shot-making in some games and been a detriment in others. The Clippers score 7.5 points fewer per 100 possessions of half-court offense with Westbrook on the court than when he sits, and it is why he hasn’t had a guaranteed spot in the closing lineup. Lue has at times kept Mann or Eric Gordon in during crunch time rather than Westbrook. How Westbrook would handle watching from the sideline was seen, at the time of his signing, as a key stress test of the relationship between the team and its new point guard.
“You see him in the fourth quarter, he’s up, he’s cheering, he’s constantly talking to T-Mann, things he sees, he’s talking to me,” Lue said March 11, after Westbrook didn’t play the final 15 minutes of a win against New York. “And so we need that.”
To avoid the play-in, they will need everything Westbrook can offer. Nowhere is that more important than Wednesday, against the Lakers.
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