Before catching a flight back to Southern California on Saturday night, the player who spent high school in Lawndale and college in Westwood donned a Dodgers cap.
The Russell Westbrook Story is intertwined with Los Angeles. That will continue on Wednesday, when the 34-year-old point guard will be at the center of one of the most momentous games between the clippers and lakers in recent memory.
With each opponent trapped in the confusing quagmire that is the Western Conference standings, and each desperately trying to avoid the NBA play-in tournament, with its margin of error narrower than a seven-game first-round series. , Westbrook will be the one for the Clippers. starting point guard when he faces his former team for the first time since the The Lakers spread it by the February trade deadline.
Westbrook understands the scrutiny that will follow his meeting with the team whose union went from celebratory to sour in a year and a half, but he said it wouldn’t change the way he approaches the game.
“But it’s a big game for us collectively, it’s probably going to be a big game for them as well, so it’s going to be a big game overall to make sure we’re ready to play,” Westbrook said. “My job is to make sure that in the locker room we are locked up and ready to compete.”
The Lakers walked away from other trades to acquire Westbrook ahead of the 2021-22 season, believing the former MVP’s theoretical fit by playing with Lebron James and antonio davis.
“As the season drags on, we’ll figure it out,” Westbrook said in his introductory news conference. “There will be ups and downs.”
His 130-game tenure produced more of the latter than the former. That adjustment 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 awkward stretches when he often stood in the corner.
His huge salary limited the Lakers’ options for roster upgrades. He clashed with journalists. Every missed shot and defensive gamble became a reminder of the path taken instead of picking up other 2021 trade packages, or holding on to the players on his 2020 roster of titles that were included in the deal to acquire him.
In February, when James outplayed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar As the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, just days after James publicly supported efforts to trade Kyrie Irving, a deal that would only have worked financially if Westbrook had been included, it was Westbrook who got the assist. Westbrook is proud of his place in NBA history, but left the arena without commenting on his role at the time.
Traded in February to Utah, which bought out his contract, Westbrook joined the Clippers and expressed how important being loved meant to him. Team stars Paul George, who staunchly defended his former Oklahoma City teammate Westbrook earlier this season as he struggled with the Lakers, and Kawhi Leonard joined coach Tyronn Lue and members of the front office in lobbying for their incorporation.
“Russ, he realizes 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. “Especially on this team, he 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 everything has gone better than expected, calling the point guard a popular addition to the locker room, albeit an imperfect solution to pre-existing problems on the court.
“Honestly, he’s a lot better than I thought he would be and he’s settling in pretty well so far,” center Ivica Zubac said on March 6. “He is also a great leader. He is very vocal, something we needed.”
An NBA scout, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to comment publicly, believed that asking Westbrook to be the Lakers’ third-best player was unfair due to playing styles that clashed with James. and Davis.
“Asking Russ to be a 3D guy is like asking Wilt [Chamberlain] being a point guard,” said the scout, adding that with the Clippers it’s “the same city, less expectations, less pressure. He is an added value.”
Westbrook made 46% of his 2-pointers and 29% of his 3-pointers this season as a Laker, and 54% and 32% as a Clipper. He’s rebounding less like the Clipper, while his averages for assists, steals, blocks, turnovers and fouls are virtually unchanged.
However, the way he scores has changed significantly. Fast breaks have accounted for nearly a fifth of Westbrook’s points as a Clipper, nearly double his rate as a Laker. He’s also scoring off turnovers at double his rate as a Laker, an indication that one of the Clippers’ goals for Westbrook has been accomplished by giving a slow, aging roster that doesn’t usually force turnovers any other way. generate points.
So does another. Westbrook is one of the proudest stars in the league, but upon his arrival, the Clippers’ coaches appealed to his humility. He was asked to avoid jumpers early on the shot clock, and he has remained remarkably disciplined, even when opponents have purposely dunked. When the Lakers asked Westbrook to set up 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’s already done so eight times in 18 games. . with the Clippers.
“He has bought that,” said Lue.
Even the tone of his post-game interviews has changed. Westbrook has taken responsibility for the losses; In March, he told a group of reporters: “I like you guys.”
“It’s been great, man,” Westbrook said. “I was just able to understand the guys, allowing myself to be myself and help them and find ways to do it. Obviously our lineup has changed many times and guys, obviously [George] Being on the outside changed a bit, but for the most part, man, it’s been great so far, and I’m thankful and thankful for that.”
One potential problem that didn’t occur arose when wing Terance Mann, who joined the starting lineup as a nominal point guard in early January, was moved to second unit. Mann could have responded sharply to Westbrook’s arrival as the instant starter in February. Instead, he said Westbrook had helped him “in a big way” by focusing on a “relentless mentality that the next play is your best play.” And I appreciate that about him.”
Westbrook was brought in to make life easier for George and Leonard, as well as the final quarters. In 28 minutes of the fourth quarter together, that trio produced a great net rating of 26.0, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions and giving up 85.5.
Westbrook has saved the Clippers with his shooting in some games and has been disruptive in others. The Clippers score 7.5 fewer points per 100 half-court offensive possessions with Westbrook on the floor than when he’s sitting, which is why he hasn’t been guaranteed a spot in the closing lineup. Lue has sometimes kept Mann or Eric Gordon during critical moments in place of Westbrook. How Westbrook would handle the observation from the bench 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 awake, he’s cheering, he’s constantly talking to T-Mann, the things he sees, he’s talking to me,” Lue said on March 11, after Westbrook didn’t play the last 15 minutes of a match. win against New York. “And so we need that.”
To avoid the play-in, they’ll need everything Westbrook has to offer. Nowhere is that more important than Wednesday against the Lakers.