The Los Angeles Lakers want Russell Westbrook to c
ome off the bench be an elite role player. That means tightening the screws on defense and putting forth equal effort on both ends, regardless if he's on or off the ball. They also need him to take, and ideally make, open shots.
In Thursday's home opener at Crypto.com Arena — which resulted in the Lakers' (0-2) eighth straight loss to the Los Angeles Clippers — Westbrook mostly checked those boxes.
Well, except for the whole “make shots” thing.
Westbrook went 0-for-11 (0-of-6 from 3, 0-of-4 at the rim) and scored two points (two free throw attempts) in the Lakers' 103-97 defeat. He became the first player in NBA history to shoot 0-for-11 or worse in two games more than a decade apart per ESPN Stats & Info. It was the second-worst shooting game of his career (he had an 0-of-13 in 2011). He sat out for most of the fourth quarter, came back in for a couple of minutes, then was replaced by Austin Reaves with 1:04 remaining and the Lakers down by five.
But here's the thing: Russ didn't actually play all that bad! In fact, he kinda did what the Lakers theoretically want. Yet, in cruel, poetic fashion, his best game on defense as a Laker coincided with his worst offensive performance.
“Solid,” is how he curtly described his game. “Played hard. All you can ask for. Go on to the next one.”
“Just flush it down the toilet and get ready for Sunday,” LeBron advised Westbrook. “He's a veteran. We've all had bad shooting nights. I've had bad shooting nights. Everybody in this league has had bad shooting nights. Who cares? I thought he played a great game. Defensively he was in tune. He was locked in. He pushed the tempo. He just didn't make any shots, and that's OK.”
Let's accentuate the positive. Russ brought the juice on defense. There were few glaring off-ball lapses. His screen navigation was sharp. His one-on-one defense was taut and fired up the bench on a few occasions — including a play in which he hounded Paul George and stripped him on a drive. In the fourth quarter, he contributed to three straight stops — a “kill”, as Ham calls it — highlighted by back-to-back steals on entry passes while checking Kawhi Leonard. He finished with five thefts, his most since coming to Los Angeles. Overall, the Lakers' inspired defensive effort kept them competitive.
FULL extension by Russ for the pass interception 🔒
Down to the wire on TNT #KiaTipOff22 pic.twitter.com/NoySvefiln
— NBA (@NBA) October 21, 2022
Paul George threw a turnover on the entry pass, the second straight on an entry pass attempt over Westbrook.
PG and Kawhi Leonard discussed it heading into the timeout. pic.twitter.com/CzIiPa2ops
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) October 21, 2022
Now, to the other side of the ball. Two good things: He committed one turnover and he set a few screens with legit force.
But, it's time to BeReal: Russ stunk on offense — for somebody making $47.1 million or the minimum.
Obviously, missing all 11 field goal attempts is bad. I could do that. As with last season, he appears legitimately rattled by the audible moans and groans that emanate from the Crypto crowd before, during, and after each jumper. He clanked the open Js the Clippers gifted him.
On a crucial possession with just under four minutes to go, he passed up an open three late in the shot clock only to find himself forced to hoist an impossible fallaway (airball).
This possession died the moment Russ got the ball, he tried to go at Zubac and had to settle for a mid range shot. Great job from Kennard denying James. pic.twitter.com/f8Goq262Kj
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) October 21, 2022
On the next possession, he reluctantly took an open three after a triple-teamed LeBron sought help. Darvin Ham pulled him from the game shortly after.
“The worst thing you can do is be wide open and hesitate or not take the shot,” Ham said postgame. “It throws off the entire rhythm of what you’re trying to do offensively. And it seeps in a little bit of a disappointment going back toward the other end to get a stop. So I want our guys to be confident. I want them to know that I trust them to step up and shoot.”
Westbrook wasn't the lone culprit in this loss. The Lakers shot 9-of-45 from 3 after shooting 10-of-40 in the season opener. Three of their primary guards — Russ, Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn — combined to shoot 1-of-25 (Lonnie Walker IV, 26 points, was a lone bright spot). The Lakers shot 35 percent from the field.
I asked Lonnie Walker IV how Darvin Ham’s system fits the Lakers. He said it fits “great” and it’s basically up to the role players to support LeBron, AD, and Russ with energy pic.twitter.com/bD4QPouq23
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 21, 2022
Unlike those guys, though, Russ isn't necessarily expected to make jumpers. But, he has to finish at the rim and get to the line.
One of the beautiful traits of basketball is the myriad opportunities for one to contribute without putting the ball in the basket. The Lakers are hoping Westbrook can tap into the gray areas of the game. The triple-doubles are behind him. The fit with LeBron and AD isn't going to click. His production in 2022-23 will be disproportionate to his cap figure.
However, that doesn't mean he can't be useful. Ironically, his bagel vs. the Clips was the blueprint. Westbrook isn't normally going to go 0-fer. The Lakers might not be full of “lasers,” but they will shoot better. They'll continue to play fast and generate good looks as they acclimate to Ham's system. Russ might not make a ton of 3s, but the other guards will convert at a higher rate. This year's team has a youthfulness and scrappiness that will pay dividends on defense.
“I'm definitely not going to sit here and harp on what we can't do every single game,” LeBron said about the shooting woes. “That's not a leader. What I know we can do? We can defend our ass off. We did that tonight, which gave us an opportunity to win and we just couldn't make it happen. But, I'm OK with that.”
“If we're reliant on (3s) every single game, then we're in trouble,” he added. “So I'm not worried about that or thinking about that. It's how hard we play, how aggressive we play, how determined we are to go out and compete every night. And we got to defend. When we defend, we're going to give ourselves a good chance to win.”
In the locker room, it was fitting that Juan Toscano-Anderson intercepted a question to Russ about if his cold shooting will affect his confidence. JTA is the model role player: a hustling, defensive-minded, culture-setter who takes pride in keeping a pulse on the vibe of his teammates. Essentially, the type of player Westbrook may need to magically morph into to write a happy ending to the final chapters of his career. Westbrook seemed to appreciate the assist from JTA.
There’s gonna be a lot of negativity about this tomorrow but this is pretty awesome https://t.co/Gwm3y4p5TK pic.twitter.com/6PMLfdRepY
— Donny McH3nry (@donny_mchenry) October 21, 2022
Now, whether Westbrook's time with the Lakers ends happily after ever? That story is yet to be written, though the Word Doc is open.