Russell Westbrook was benched again. What can the Lakers do to salvage his talent?
Russell Westbrook, the Lakers guard who does everything loudly, meekly clapped his hands together from the end of the team’s bench, his play landing him here instead of out there.
Without him on the court, the Lakers were putting the Knicks away in overtime on Saturday. With him on the floor, they were outscored by 15 points, a stretch that included the end of the fourth when his mistakes helped the Lakers cough up a seven-point lead.
So Frank Vogel, for the second time in the Lakers’ last three home games, decided to close with the team’s $44-million man on the bench.
To finish off the Knicks, Vogel instead played Talen Horton-Tucker throughout overtime.
LeBron James and Malik Monk starred, and the Lakers shook off boos and rallied from 21 down to earn a 122-115 overtime win over the New York Knicks.
“Obviously Russ was having a tough night on both sides of the ball and [LeBron James] was really going,” Vogel said after the Lakers’ 122-115 win. “So I knew the ball was gonna be in Bron’s hands, and I felt like we were going to get more from a defensive perspective and off-ball action with Talen. So … you just make tough decisions in the spirit of whatever the team needs to win a game.”
Westbrook shot 1 for 10 with four turnovers. He scored only five points, a season low. It’s only the second time in his career that Westbrook scored five points or fewer in 29 minutes or more.
It’s also the first time since April 12, 2017 that he didn’t score more than five points.
“Everybody has off nights. I have some. Other people may have some. And that’s a part of the game,” Westbrook said. “That’s basketball. But I don’t care about anything as long as we won. Winning is the most important part of this game.”
Postgame, Westbrook seemed unaffected — smiling on his way into a postgame news conference and not complaining about Vogel’s decision.
“He’s the coach. He makes the decision on whatever he feels is best for his team,” Westbrook said. “Like I said, the most important part is not about myself, it’s about our team. We won the game and that’s the most important part.”
But is it?
It’s hard to know if Westbrook’s benching gets the Lakers any closer to their bigger goals. Yeah, a win on Saturday helps them in the short term — the Lakers can’t waste performances like the ones they got from James, Anthony Davis and Malik Monk. But by benching Westbrook, Vogel acknowledged that the guard isn’t a reliable complement to James.
“There’s nothing wrong with any player, if someone’s not playing well enough and they don’t get to finish the game or they don’t get to close the game out, there’s nothing wrong with giving someone else who you feel is gonna give you a better chance, giving them the opportunity,” Vogel said. “And hopefully the response is that that player plays better. That’s the hope.”
The hope, though, also has to be that Westbrook can become more comfortable playing off the ball, especially if James and Davis continue their dominant play. And that means Westbrook has to get comfortable making a real difference on the edges of the game. But so much of what Westbrook does can’t live on the edges. What has made him a great player in his career is his domineering, do-everything style. Pushing that kind of player to the side seems like an obvious recipe for struggles.
Making things worse on Saturday was Westbrook’s awareness. Knowing he was playing poorly, Westbrook started turning down open shots and open driving lanes while the crowd groaned (in some cases, after encouraging him not to shoot).
The Lakers erase a 17-point deficit in the second half to take a pair of one-point leads late before Reggie Jackson gives the Clippers a 111-110 win.
“It can be frustrating. The fans, obviously, want to see him play better. But one thing you can’t do is put too much pressure on yourself,” Davis said of Westbrook. “You have to go out there and play freely. There were some shots tonight that he usually takes in rhythm that he kind of passed up or hesitated. Me and LB were telling him, ‘We don’t care if you miss every one. Just play. Shoot your rhythm shots. Don’t hesitate.’ And obviously, it’s easier said than done because when you’re in it, you don’t want to be missing shots. I mean, he doesn’t try to miss. A lot of the shots he takes, are shots that he can make.
“But he’s got to stay out of his own head.”
It’s why, before he ended the game on the bench, that teammates like Monk, the injured Carmelo Anthony and James all sought out Westbrook.
“I told him to keep going, to stop second-guessing himself during the game. There were a couple of times where he had good looks, second-guessed himself and a couple times where he had some drives and he had them and second-guessed himself,” James said. “He’s an instinctive player and he should never, what he’s done in this league, he should never second-guess himself if he’s put the work in — and he’s put the work in. So I just told him to just hit me later.
“And I don’t need to harp on what we need to say to him. I mean, he’s a big-time player. And I have the utmost confidence in his ability, not only for this team but for himself, individually.”
All things Lakers, all the time.
Get all the Lakers news you need in Dan Woike's weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.