The Los Angeles Lakers fell two games under .500 (24-26) and dropped their second game in a row in a 117-114 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Friday at the Spectrum Center. The Lakers fell to 2-3 on the crucial East Coast road trip, as one contest remains — against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday — before they can return to Los Angeles. Don’t blame Russell Westbrook.

Playing without LeBron James and Anthony Davis (plus Malik Monk), the Lakers improbably scrapped and clawed their way to the final minute. Their expected “third star”, finally — and belatedly — played like one.

Westbrook (who was listed as questionable with knee soreness) finished with a season-high 35 points — including 30 in the second half, the most for a Lakers player in a half since Kobe Bryant’s final game. He shot 12-of-23 from the field, 3-of-7 from deep, and 8-of-10 from the free-throw line. He added five assists, four rebounds, and only one turnover. He brilliantly balanced tempo, orchestration, discipline, and aggressiveness. Where has this guy been?

It was All-Star form from the nine-time All-Star who received … modest support from his peers in the voting for the 2022 All-Star Game.

The Lakers have gotten ideal, powerhouse performances from each of their “Big 3” (Lakers 360? Is that still a thing?) over the past three games. Unfortunately — and fittingly, based on how this season has transpired — it’s come across three different occasions.

On Tuesday, Anthony Davis’ return sparked the Lakers in a win over the Brooklyn Nets, but it was LeBron James who, once again, dominated, dropping 33 points. On Thursday, without LeBron, Davis outplayed Joel Embiid, though he injured his wrist in the process (pun not intended).

On Friday — now with both AD and LeBron sidelined — Russ exploded. It was his best game since joining the Lakers.

“It’s something that when the team needs me to do it, I’m able to still do it,” Westbrook said postgame. “That’s the most important part. The unfortunate part is we didn’t win the game. But we know with my teammates and those guys giving me the confidence to be aggressive and make the right read, it was good to kind of get that going.”

It was just the second time this season that Westbrook has led the Lakers in scoring. The first time came on Nov. 23.

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Notably, Westbrook did miss the would-be game-winner. In typical Russ fashion, the shot selection was debatable, yet defendable. Undeniably, though, he was the primary reason the short-handed Lakers were in a position to beat the upstart Charlotte Hornets.

“At that point, the hottest guy in the gym has the ball in his hands ready to make a play,” Vogel said postgame. “I have no problem with the shot he took. He was 3 of 6 from three for the second half, and he went for the win. He knocks that down, we’re talking about one hell of a win.”

Westbrook had hit back-to-back threes in the final minutes.

“I just made two before that,” Russ said. “So I’ll live and die by that one.”

Beyond the production, Vogel also praised Westbrook’s leadership in the first half, before he got going. Russ was noticeably active on the bench reacting to the spirited play of the Lakers reserves. According to Vogel, Russ was particularly vocal in timeouts and huddles calling out instructions.

The Lakers paid a steep price for Westbrook, with the precise hope that he could carry the load in games when either LeBron or AD is out, or one or both stars simply want to chill out a bit. For too many reasons to cover in this paragraph, that hasn’t happened — save for perhaps an early-season overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs.

In Charlotte — on the second leg of a back-to-back — Westbrook looked like, well, the realization of the Lakers’ vision.

“Tonight called for him to play that type of way,” Carmelo Anthony said about Westbrook’s aggression. “And as you can see, he did a great job of bringing us back.”

Westbrook, LeBron, and Davis have played only 16 games together. LeBron and Davis are day-to-day. Whenever all three can suit up, the question will be, in the words of David Byrne, the same as it ever was: Can these three play like complementary stars at the same time, and what is the Lakers potential when that happens?