By now, in the 12th season of his stellar NBA career, Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook no longer considers it a big deal to come back to Los Angeles.
But the Southern California native and former UCLA standout transformed an ordinary visit to play the Lakers into an extraordinary occasion Thursday night, an event that was infused with history and sentiment and inspiration from someone who was not there but was with him in his heart.
Westbrook considered Kobe Bryant a close friend, and like many others who knew Bryant, Westbrook hasn’t fully come to terms with Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash in Calabasas on Jan. 26. Playing in Staples Center, the scene of so many of Bryant’s exploits and soon to be the site of a public memorial service Feb. 24 for Bryant and the eight people who died alongside him, Westbrook honored Bryant the best way he knew how — by playing with a ferocity Bryant would have appreciated and applauded.
“Definitely it was emotional,” Westbrook said of his first game here since Bryant’s death, “but knowing the relationship me and Kobe had, I know his mentality because I feel like we shared that. I know if he was here, I know what he would want me to do — and that’s to go out and play my ass off, and that’s what I did.”
Westbrook’s 41-point, five-assist performance was the backbone of Houston’s 121-111 victory over the Lakers and carried him the final steps over two significant milestones. He passed 20,000 career points and moved up to 14th on the career assists list, with 7,212. He joined LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the only NBA players who have scored 20,000 points, recorded 7,000 assists and pulled down 6,000 rebounds. Elite company, indeed.
“I think of so many things that happened in my career that I’m so thankful for. Each night I go out and leave it on the floor, and that’s what I want to be known for, going out and playing my ass off every time and competing at a very, very high level that not many people can compete at,” Westbrook said. “I’m thankful and grateful to be with this group of guys.”
Reaching 20,000 points he said “is a blessing. I can’t give nobody thanks but the man above for allowing me to just go out and compete every night. Thankful for being healthy, thankful for so much, and so many great teammates. Just give thanks to the man above for allowing me to go out and compete and the rest, I try to take care of.”
He took care of business in a big way on a night the Rockets played small ball to an unusual extreme. None of their starters was taller than 6 feet 6. Forward Robert Covington, acquired by the Rockets in a four-team trade that was finalized Wednesday, became their tallest oak at 6-8 when he came off the bench in the first quarter. No one taller played a single minute for Houston.
Despite their distinct height disadvantage, the Rockets lost the rebound battle by only one. And despite NBA scoring leader James Harden’s poor shooting night and quiet 14-point performance, the Rockets smoothly absorbed Covington, who made a three-pointer to put Houston ahead 115-111 with two minutes and 40 seconds left and inserted the dagger when he hit another three, after a Harden rebound, to put Houston up 120-111 with 1:27 to play. “It’s huge, man,” Westbrook said of adding Covington, who probably will become a starter.
In addition to spacing the court, Covington played well defensively and tied Westbrook for the team lead with eight rebounds, seven of them on the defensive end. Small ball will be the Rockets’ mantra for the foreseeable future.
“It’s how the team functions best. If we had a different team we’d play differently,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “With Russell who he is and we have little guys that guard bigs, we just have a weird kind of team and we just try to figure out how to play them the best we can, and we think this is it.”
It reassured D’Antoni that the Rockets were successful with it so quickly. “Any time you try something different, these guys have got to believe in it. This helps. This helps a lot,” he said. “Because if you come in here and get spanked and we’re a little, ‘Oh, maybe we can’t do this.’ So they’re fired up and we’ll keep trying.
“It helps a lot. Regardless of it’s only one game and all that, the confidence for the guys is good.”
The Lakers weren’t surprised by the Rockets’ strategy but still couldn’t stop them.
“We knew what they were going to do. We know what their roster is, so we scouted it,” center JaVale McGee said. “It was they just hit shots that they usually hit, they hit some contested shots, Russ had a good game getting to the rim, and they had a good game plan.”
Whether small ball will work in the playoffs is debatable, and Westbrook didn’t want to read too much into Thursday’s result. “We know what our main goal is,” he said. “It’s a big win for us, definitely, but we know what the ultimate goal is and this is one step forward in that direction.”
His performance also turned an ordinary night into an extraordinary homecoming.
“It’s an unbelievable accomplishment,” he said, “something that I will cherish and remember.”