Bad news first: Russell Westbrook was not good in his debut for the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 35 minutes, Westbrook finished with eight points on 4-of-13 shooting and missed all four of his three-point attempts (yes – “Westbrick” was trending on Twitter during the game). The NBA’s triple-double king grabbed a mere five rebounds and four assists. He had four turnovers and four personal fouls. His first basket came late in the second quarter.
All of that added up to a -23 in the Lakers' 121-114 loss to the Golden State Warriors at a fully-packed and fully-Jacked Staples Center.
The eye test was worse: Despite a relatively tentative (for him) approach, Westbrook looked out of sorts, as he was throughout the preseason. For all the glimpses and talk of new offensive action, the Lakers didn’t run much of anything, especially with Russ running point.
His defense wasn’t much better, though, as LeBron James, pointed out postgame, the Warriors' sophisticated offense is extra-“challenging”. (Westbrook mostly checked Jordan Poole, who scored 20 points, while Kent Bazemore, et al. did an admirable job on Stephen Curry. Steph still posted his eighth career triple-double.)
Afterward, Frank Vogel played the similar chord that we’ve heard since training camp began: It’s going to take a minute for Westbrook to learn to play off LeBron and Anthony Davis — who were both “spectacular” in the opener. (Tuesday was the first time the Lakers had lost when AD and LeBron both scored at least 30.)
Lakers lose to Warriors, 121-114. LeBron is 0-4 in season openers as a Laker.
LeBron (34/11/5) and AD (33/11) were strong, while Russell Westbrook (8/5/3, 4-13 FG, -23) struggled immensely. 9-of-19 from the line doomed the Lakers.
Some good, some bad. Great energy at Staples
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 20, 2021
“Him more than anybody: it’s going to be an adjustment period,” Vogel said. “He’s coming into our culture, our system, and he’s the new guy. And he’s got to find his way … He's going to be great for us … He just needs time.”
Essentially, we saw the worst of Westbrook on Tuesday. The flaws without the flare.
Russell Westbrook has played 1,055 games in his NBA career.
Tonight was his 8th-worst, according to Game Score (a holistic measure of single-game performance).
His last game this poor came so long ago he was still teammates with Durant. https://t.co/OvT93PCtFu
— Zach Kram (@zachkram) October 20, 2021
(Kendall Roy voice): But…let’s not overreact. The Lakers surely won’t. Here's why:
It's Game 1 of 82
Westbrook is one of the fastest players in NBA history, but he and the Lakers know this season will be a marathon, not a sprint.
Russ was sloppy and discombobulated during the preseason (23 turnovers in four games). On the other hand, his potential to ignite transition opportunities and wreak havoc alongside James and Davis was evident, if briefly so.
Either way, expecting Russ to suddenly flip the switch and play All-Star caliber hoops just because the game suddenly counts is unfeasible.
In general, starting slow has been a recent theme of Westbrook's career. Apparently, that's what happens when you play for four teams in four seasons.
In 2018-19, Westbrook, on a familiar squad in OKC, averaged 20.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.2 assists before Christmas. He upped those numbers to 24.4/11.2/11.0 for the final 48 games.
In 2019-20, with the Houston Rockets, Russ boosted his PPG from 24.1 pre-Santa to 30.2 PPG as the team adjusted around him.
Last season with the Washington Wizards, Westbrook and the group struggled through the first 31 games (21.2/9.3/10.1) before exploding in the home stretch (23.2/13.6/13.3).
— Conner (@gochoof) October 20, 2021
There are legitimate reasons to question whether Westbrook can acclimate well enough to the Lakers to earn a championship. He's never been asked to play third-banana, and his historical shooting and off-ball woes and subpar defense (especially as a helper) don't make him a natural supporting actor.
“We just gotta continue to push, continue to get better,” Davis said. “I told Russ and Bron today — you know, Russ is very hard on himself — and I told him today, ‘I'm 0-3 in my Lakers season openers.' It's Game 1. The same way he's feeling right now is the same way I was feeling in my first year here…We'll be fine. We'll figure it out. He'll figure it out.”
Certainly, the blatancy of his struggles on Tuesday was jarring (and, frankly, it was the reason the Lakers lost, along with their 9-of-19 performance from the free-throw line and some second-half defensive miscues). But it’s simply foolish to consider panicking before Christmas.
“This doesn't happen overnight,” LeBron said. “It's not instant oatmeal.”
The Lakers have not won a season opener since LeBron came to town.
Let's be real: He had a lot going on
Contrary to his otherworldly motor and athleticism, Russell Westbrook is a human being with immense internal and external pressure being placed upon him.
In his pre-camp press conference, Rob Pelinka jokingly predicted that Vogel would have to call a timeout a minute into the first game, just to calm down the sure-to-be-amped Leuzinger High School alum.
Westbrook didn’t play with that kind of instant abandon on Tuesday, but his mind seemed all over the place. Beyond the undeveloped on-court chemistry, Westbrook was just … off. Not aggressive enough nor responsibly cautious. Not jacking up shots nor creating enough assist opportunities.
Davis said he understands Westbrook's passive inclination, but the Lakers “just want him to be himself, be aggressive. Be Russell Westbrook. Be the reason why we traded for you. Once he do that, everybody else will learn to play around him.”
Davis compared it to his own start in Los Angeles, when he deferred to LeBron too much.
“Doing what's best for the team is being Russell Westbrook,” he added. “It's our job to continue to encourage him to be himself and don't look for the pass all the time … We'd rather you be aggressive than be a little timid. It's a learning experience for sure playing with me and LB.”
AD said the Lakers will seek to get Russ in more pick-and-roll and post-up situations and make sure he gets more downhill opportunities.
Davis and James said they offered words of encouragement to a dejected Westbrook in the locker room. Westbrook downplayed the peripheral factors surrounding his Lakers debut in his extremely terse press conference, but LeBron and Davis didn't. In fact, they both used the phrase “first-game jitters.”
“When you come here the lights are brighter,” AD said. “You see everybody courtside and the lights are brighter than most arenas. You look at the rafters, there's just a lot that goes on. So you kind of have those first-game jitters. He's back home. So there's a lot that he was probably processing tonight.”
LeBron said the Lakers “won't harp on it too much.”
“I think it was just first-game jitters,” James assessed. “There probably was a lot going through his mind, just being a kid from LA, watching the Lakers growing up … putting on a Lakers uniform and stepping into Staples Center. I can only imagine how many friends and family and contacts he had wanting to come see his first game as a Laker. Those things, those demands … wind down as the season move along. So I'm not worried about Russ at all, he just needs to be himself.”
His advice to Russ?
“Go home and watch a comedy. Something that will put a smile on his face … Don't be so hard on yourself, it's one game.”