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Column: Russell Westbrook, symbol of Lakers dysfunction, is reviving his NBA reputation

Clippers point guard Russell Westbrook dunks as Phoenix Suns forward Torrey Craig looks on in Game 4.
Clippers point guard Russell Westbrook dunks against the Suns in Game 4 of the first-round playoff series Saturday. He had 37 points in a loss.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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His play was striking. Even more so was how he presented himself after the Clippers’ 112-100 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday.

Russell Westbrook was calm. He was philosophical. He was everything he wasn’t with the Lakers.

Now on his fifth NBA stop, the 34-year-old Westbrook has found an unlikely late-career calling as the leader of an overmatched team making its final stand.

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With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sidelined, the Clippers are circling the same drain they did last year and the year before that, but Westbrook isn’t panicking.

Despite 37 points from Russell Westbrook, the Clippers can’t keep pace with the Suns late in Game 4 and trail the best-of-seven NBA playoff series 3-1.

April 22, 2023

They are within a loss of playoff elimination, their deficit in this Western Conference first-round series now three games to one, but Westbrook is more focused on details than he is of the broad-picture disaster in process.

The player most emblematic of the Lakers’ early-season dysfunction, Westbrook is carrying himself in a way that will allow the Clippers to preserve a measure of dignity as they fade into another offseason of despair.

In the wake of his 37-point performance in Game 4, Westbrook was asked about not attempting a single free throw during a game in which he shot the ball 29 times.

“I keep attacking, man,” he said. “Stay positive. Don’t get distracted. Just being in the league over time, when fouls, they don’t call it, just concentrate on making the shot. They call the foul, they call it. They don’t, they don’t.”

This variation of the control-what-you-can-control mantra is what the other Clippers have to hear. This is how they have to approach the rest of the series if they are to keep alive whatever remote chance they still have of reversing their deficit.

“With Russ,” coach Tyronn Lue said, “when he’s on the floor, we believe we can win every night.”

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Russell Westbrook dunks as a trio of Phoenix Suns watch him in the first half Saturday.
Russell Westbrook dunks as a trio of Phoenix Suns watch him do it in the first half Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

On a minimum contract that will expire when the Clippers are officially eliminated by the Suns, Westbrook might not be a long-term solution for a franchise that remains in search of its first NBA championship. However, he has proven to be the right player for these Clippers in this particular situation, his trademark full-throttle style and noticeably changed demeanor inspiring them to dream when they realistically have no reasons to.

“I didn’t know how to feel about [signing Westbrook] when it happened,” center Ivica Zubac said. “I didn’t know how we were going to make it work. But he’s been amazing, amazing for us.”

Who would have guessed?

“The way he’s been playing since he got with the Clippers shows everybody who he really is,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said.

Despite a valiant effort in Game 3, the Clippers fell to the Suns after Kawhi Leonard is ruled out with a knee injury. The Clippers Curse has no mercy.

April 21, 2023

Over the last two months, Westbrook hasn’t exhibited the defensive and combative behavior that characterized his time with the Lakers. Maybe he gained perspective after hitting rock bottom. Maybe he knew he had to comport himself better if he wanted to remain in the league. Either way, since switching locker rooms at Crypto.com Arena, his disposition has brightened to where he now exchanges pleasantries with some local reporters with whom he previously clashed.

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Westbrook turns the ball over as much with the Clippers as he did with the Lakers, but his new employer is willing to accept his limitations in exchange for the energy he provides, a sort of Tim Tebow in basketball shorts. An example: Westbrook made only three of 19 shots in Game 1 but made a key defensive play on Devin Booker near the end of the game to secure a Clippers win.

“I just try to instill confidence in our guys, not to put our head down,” Westbrook said. “You know [the Suns] are going to make some tough shots throughout the series, and that’s part of leadership. You’ve got to make sure you rally around the guys you have and find ways to instill confidence in them through tough moments, not [just] when things are going well.”

Westbrook delivered more conventionally effective performances in Game 3, in which he scored 30 points, and Game 4, in which he scored 37. With Game 3 near-hero Norman Powell shooting poorly Saturday, Westbrook shot and shot and shot some more, taking nearly a third of the Clippers’ field-goal attempts.

“I just thought Russ did a great job of leading that charge, attacking the basket on the offensive end, defensively guarding KD and Book [Devin Booker],” Lue said. “I thought the guys did a good job of following his lead, and we’re going to need it again come Tuesday [in Game 5].”

Westbrook won’t be able to extract the Clippers from their distinct version of purgatory. He won’t save their season. Yet in his brief time with them, he has shown he still has something to offer, and, in doing so, almost certainly guaranteed himself a place in the league next season.

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