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Newsletter: Lakers’ Russell Westbrook: ‘One thing I never do is panic’

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook listens to head coach Frank Vogel along the sideline.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, listening to head coach Frank Vogel along the sideline during a break in play Wednesday, is shooting 30% from the field over the last five games.
(José Luis Villegas / Associated Press)

Hello, everyone. This is Dan Woike, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times. Welcome to the weekly newsletter.

I just cracked open a half bottle of cheap red wine after walking past a drunk family chanting, “Beat L.A.,” on the mostly empty streets of Sacramento. In this week’s newsletter, we take another crack at trying to explain Russell Westbrook and how this plan has ended up failing LeBron James.

The answer is different because he thinks the question keeps changing

We wouldn’t have been wrong to expect Russell Westbrook to be in a foul mood.

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Generally annoyed with the concept of postgame news conferences as is, doing one Wednesday night after being trolled by the Sacramento Kings of all teams probably wasn’t going to be the most productive venue to try to probe why things are going the way they are for the Lakers, who are back at .500 with a 21-21 record.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the podium, Westbrook laughing before he sat down, owning some of his failures during the media session and small-talking on his way to the bus afterward.

“I take it as a compliment because if I wasn’t out here and hadn’t done anything in this game, they wouldn’t pay no mind to me or pay no mind to what I’m doing or how I’m doing it,” Westbrook said of fan criticism in Sacramento. “I look at it like a positive. Because if they’re so concerned with what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, when I’m doing it, I’m doing something right in this game.”

While a smoother three-point stroke would certainly help on the court, he doesn’t lack for perspective off of it. Westbrook has repeatedly said that basketball isn’t everything to him — not always the kind of thing you want to hear from someone who makes more than $40 million a year to play it. Yet from a work-life balance view, there’s probably something to be admired.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook and center DeAndre Jordan huddle before the Kings game.
Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, left, and center DeAndre Jordan huddle before the Kings game.
(José Luis Villegas / Associated Press)

Maybe that’s why he can laugh at the Sacramento Kings’ in-arena sound guys playing “Cold as Ice” from Foreigner after he added a few more stories to a skyscraper of missed shots. Maybe that’s how, with a straight face, he can tell people that his game isn’t about his mistakes — misses and turnovers — when his impact can sometimes be more visceral than statistical — funny enough considering his triple-doubles.

Or maybe this was all calculated by a player who likes to do the unexpected, showing vulnerability and humanity instead of cold frustration and impatience like he did after the Lakers lost to Memphis on Sunday.

None of that stuff, ultimately, matters on the court. That’s strictly results-based territory. Things like Westbrook’s effort, attitude and loyalty have earned him fans around the league, but with the clock ticking on this Lakers season and James’ championship window, desire is only going to go so far.

Westbrook tried to define his struggles — beyond the shooting slump that has him below 30% over the last five games — by explaining that his role is in a state of flux with the Lakers. That in addition to learning how to play with a brand new team, he’s had to deal with a different version of that group every time he blinks.

It’s an adjustment, and he’s got to be quicker in finding it.

“Obviously, I got to be able to make it and figure it out. But nobody going to feel sorry for me or for us to be able to do that,” he said Wednesday. “Me as a player, I got to figure out to do it the best way within the way that we’re playing, within the system and that’s that. I got no excuses. For me, I don’t point fingers. I always just look at myself and figure out ways to become better.

“But one thing I never do is panic. I never lack confidence in my stuff and what I’m capable of doing. But I am and will put more pressure on myself to be better, especially on offense and making sure as we move forward.”

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Leburdened

Through all of this — and by this, we definitely mean a situation that’s been exacerbated by Anthony Davis’ knee injury and the COVID-19 outbreak among his team — James has been a steadying force, scoring more than 30 points 11 times in the Lakers’ last 12 games.

He’s been playing center while still being the team’s go-to offensive guy every night, and with Westbrook struggling to score, that’s only gotten more important.

And James is playing the most minutes he’s played since being in Los Angeles.

Cool, right?

“I only play the game for one reason, it’s to win,” James said. “And no matter what I’ve been doing as far as this season so far, it hasn’t really resulted in as many wins as I would like. So I continue to see ways that I can be better as well. See ways of what I can do both offensively and defensively or for me from a leadership standpoint to help this team get over the hump a little bit more.

“So, for me, I don’t get caught up in usage rates and heavy loads and things of that nature. That’s been me my whole career, since I was an 18-year-old kid taking over a franchise. So, that type of pressure or that type of load is something I’m accustomed to, I’ve been accustomed to for 20 years.”

Maybe that’s made him callused. Or maybe, and the Lakers better hope not, it’s about to take its toll.

Song of the week

Falling Thunder” by Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

This week’s song is appropriately titled because Lakers fans are watching a former Thunder with a shot that won’t fall. Good tune from a good band.

Since we last spoke ...

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at daniel.woike@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!


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