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Without LeBron James, Russell Westbrook showed why Lakers traded for him in win vs. Spurs

Lakers, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, LeBron James

Since the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook in a blockbuster trade, numerous members of the team — including Anthony Davis — projected how the nine-time All-Star would impact the Lakers during the laborious 82-game marathon.

“The energy he brings every night is going to be pivotal for us with the long season,” Kent Bazemore said in training camp. “Maybe some nights we’ll be in a city, low energy, and here comes Russ storming down the middle with a dunk to get us going. That’s kind of the intangibles he has as a player, as a person that is going to help us a lot this year.”

Well, it took a grand total of four games for that expectation to manifest.

On Tuesday, the Lakers hit the road for their first game of the season outside Staples Center. Pleasantly — and unimaginably to anyone who remembers the mid-2000s — they found nearly equally friendly confines at the AT&T Center and defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 125-121 in overtime, as LeBron James took on assistant coaching duties.

Los Angeles was led by a magnificent Westbrook (33 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals, 15-27 FG) and AD (35 points, 17 rebounds) — and buoyed by clutch contributions from replacement starter Malik Monk (17 points, +31), Austin Reaves (1o points in 30 minutes) and Dwight Howard (8 rebounds, 2 blocks, +12 in 18 minutes).

If nothing else, it was a gritty performance sans LeBron, who nursed the sore right ankle Desmond Bane collided into during the Lakers’ wild win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday.

We know the Lakers’ ability to execute late in playoff games will determine whether they win a title. For the regular season, though — with or without LeBron — these are the types of performances that encapsulate precisely why the oldest team in NBA history acquired the ultimate floor raiser in Brodie.

“Last year, we lost LeBron and AD for a long stretch and we didn’t have enough to sustain throughout the regular season and to win in the playoffs,” Vogel acknowledged postgame. “To get a guy like Russ — if one of those guys is down, we have another guy who can put up a monster night like we saw tonight. So, paying early dividends.”

How Russell Westbrook dominated Spurs without LeBron

1) Overall havoc-wreaking

These are not exactly the doldrums of the season. But, it’s early, the Lakers were on the first night of a back-to-back and playing without LeBron, Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wayne Ellington, and Trevor Ariza. Carmelo Anthony (1-of-7) didn’t have it.

Los Angeles could have easily wilted or managed loads against a youthful, spunky Spurs group — especially after an 18-3 Spurs run to close out the third — and looked toward Wednesday’s matchup vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder (or beyond).

Instead, the Lakers came out blazing in the fourth quarter. They embarked on a 14-3 run, largely sparked by Howard’s defense and Westbrook’s aggressiveness (a complete 180 from his tepid debut a mere seven days ago).

Even when Westbrook picked up his fifth foul with 4:50 remaining and was subbed out for nearly four minutes (a mistake from Vogel), the team had already fought back. I’m not sure things play out the same way with Dennis Schroder running point.

The season opener was the worst version of Westbrook: inefficient, hesitant, indecisive. His performance in San Antonio was ideal: full-steam ahead, setting up teammates, finishing around the rim. His presence and energy was contagious and palpable at all times.

He even drained his second 3-pointer of the season to give the Lakers a fourth-quarter lead.

2) Leading the paint attack

For the first time this season, the Lakers outscored the opposition in the paint, 72-64, despite a highlight-reel(!) showing from Jakob Poeltl (27 points).

This effort was (forgive me) spurred by Westbrook. Russ had not quite found his downhill groove yet this season and struggled with missed (bricked) layups through his first three games. Entering Tuesday, the Lakers were shooting just 59% at the rim — 22nd in the NBA.

During his post-practice media session on Saturday and after the Grizzlies win, Vogel voiced his preference for the Lakers’ to attack the rim first and play inside-out, yet lamented the team’s issues converting close-range shots. (They missed 12 layups vs. the Phoenix Suns.) That issue was not the case at the AT&T Center.

Westbrook lobbed it up to Davis and DeAndre Jordan early and often, then began taking matters into his own hands. Minus LeBron and established cohesion, this was the Lakers’ best path to victory.

“Obviously, Russ was huge during that stretch attacking the rim,” Vogel said about the team’s fourth-quarter surge. “He just had a monster night. Him and AD both just had monster nights. … Really orchestrated the offense down the stretch, had some great plays throughout the game with AD and with our bigs, lobbing the ball to the basket. I think he slowed down just a little bit in terms of his paint attacks. To play 39 minutes with only three turnovers is just a hell of a night.”

Westbrook echoed his coach’s analysis.

“Just slowing down a little bit,” he said. “First three games, rushing around the basket, which I don’t really need to. Getting there, taking my time, focusing on making the layup.”

Fittingly, Westbrook punctuated his evening with a mean facial at the rim.

3) Anthony Davis was a benefactor (and dominated on his own)

Russ frequently (and genuinely) says his primary role is to put his teammates in positions to succeed. Of course, Westbrook naturally lifts up his teammates with his day-to-day motor, as numerous Lakers players noted in their intro remarks in August, and AD mentioned at Media Day.

“Having a player like that, who’s going to bring it every night, energy, the motor, defensive end, I think it’s something that we just had to take a chance on,” Davis said. “And he’s excited, we’re excited to have him.”

Maybe AD didn’t need Russ to light a fire under him on Tuesday. After all, he was a different player after being, let’s say, humbled, by Poetlt in the first quarter.

That aside, Davis clearly benefited from having Russ on the floor to a degree that he never did with Schroder. Look at this connection:

“Especially with Bron being out, we understand that with that comes the responsibility of making guys around us better,” Westbrook said. “And tonight, AD did a great job of just being aggressive all night, missing makes, finishing around the basket. It was big for us tonight.”

On the downside, Davis knocked knees with a Spurs player in the final minute of the fourth quarter — generating a minute of existential fright for the Lakers’ front office and fan base for the second consecutive game. He’s preliminarily questionable for tomorrow vs. OKC.

Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if both he and LeBron take Wednesday off and rest up until the Lakers host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday.

In other words: The Lakers may need another Brodie game. He has done that a few times in Oklahoma City.