With his white AirPods in his ears, his gaze fixed on the Sacramento highlights playing on a locker room television, Russell Westbrook bobbed his head Friday night in a locker a few feet down the hall from his old man’s Crypto.com Arena. .
Set in new digs and a new attack and surrounded by new teammates, the former Laker and newest Clipper prepared for his first chance to show a new side: one in which the former Most Valuable Player could use his most damaging traits. suppressing are most useful , while increasing the Clippers’ potential.
What followed was the second highest scoring game in NBA history, a 176-175 fever dream of points and pace with one improbable Sacramento Kings win, two overtimes, defense that wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s All-Star Game, Kawhi Leonard’s entire offensive arsenal en route to a season-high 44 points, and the full Westbrook experience — his mark has left his mark throughout his fifth team’s debut in five seasons in ways that ran the spectrum from positive to puzzling.
This was no small stage on which a new starter in Westbrook debuted. The Kings (34-25) remain third in the West, two spots ahead of the Clippers (33-29), but they are now separated by 2½ games. Sacramento leads the season series 2-1, with their last game next week.
Westbrook cut into the track with his drifts and made a foul on his first foray into the paint. Just as important was what he cut out: the pull-up jump shots that rarely fell during his season and a half in purple and gold. He attempted to set up screens, so often a rarity in his game, even if they led to a few illegal defensive calls, and pushed the ball upwards when he got some space. Westbrook capped off a breakneck first half with a left-handed finger roll, then his drive in transition created enough room to throw a pass to Norman Powell, whose three-pointer set a Clippers season-high for points before halftime, at 80.
It was only the 10th time in franchise history that they scored 80 or more in a half, and only the second time this season that two teams each scored 75 or more in a half. With an optional defense for both teams, before the fourth quarter had even begun, Westbrook became the first Clipper to record at least 10 assists in their team debut since Sam Cassell, 18 years ago.
But for all the attention on Westbrook and what his addition might mean, he only represents one question the Clippers must answer in order to realize their title ambitions. More were revealed on Friday, with 25 turnovers earning 42 points for the Kings.
Four in a row changed the game during a disastrous fourth quarter.
Leading 11 with 3:18 left, the Clippers turned the ball over on four straight possessions—turnovers by Westbrook, two by George, and an offensive foul by Powell—then missed a shot on a fifth to cut their lead to 147-146 with only 82 seconds left to play.
With the Clippers leading 153–150 with just 8.5 seconds left in regulation and coach Tyronn Lue opting not to foul, Westbrook guarded inbound passer Malik Monk, then turned his head to see how De’Aaron Fox dribbled long enough to lose Monk past the distant three. – dot line. It was enough time for Monk to get off the shot to send a game that had been an 11-point lead over Clippers three minutes earlier into overtime, as Westbrook raced to challenge the shot.
In overtime, Westbrook’s three-pointer pushed the lead to four, and when Paul George missed two free throws, a Nicolas Batum putback extended the lead to six with three minutes remaining.
Again, the Clippers couldn’t hold it. Improving their offensive execution late in the game was one reason the team sought Westbrook’s ball-handling experience, but an isolation possession yielded a missed jumper by George and a missed putback by Leonard, and a second overtime period was required.
Westbrook received a roaring ovation after a foul out in the second overtime, finishing with 17 points, 14 assists, five rebounds and seven turnovers – his 15th game this season with at least five turnovers.
For the Clippers’ big gamble on Westbrook to pay off, he’ll have to be prepared at best to play a contributor rather than a savior. the league’s All-Star break by scoring 21 points in the third quarter.
Leonard’s scoring burst included six 3-pointers, the last when Leonard dribbled on a defender, Monk, and fired a 3-pointer while a second, Trey Lyles, raced in vain for help. As double teams followed again on the next two possessions, Leonard’s passes led to a Marcus Morris Sr. pull-up jumper.
During what Clippers brass called honest, candid talks with Westbrook ahead of his buyout in Utah earlier this month, the team never promised Westbrook a starting role, but his relationship with Lue and the coach’s unwavering faith in Westbrook, even though the Lakers were happy to move away from him after 130 games, probably making his debut as a starter since he officially signed his contract for the rest of the season. for the competition minimum Wednesday afternoon.
That confidence was evident in Lue’s decision to keep Westbrook on the ground until he fouled 1:49 to play in double overtime.
But there was another factor: If the Clippers replaced starting guard Terance Mann in favor of Westbrook, there was an urgent need to do so rather than delay the final decision at a time when time is most precious, with only 20 games to go.
“We don’t have much time to really experiment,” Lue said for the tip, “because we still have games to win.”
In more ways than one, they lost their chance to win a crucial on Friday.