When the Clippers signed Russell Westbrook this week, coach Tyronn Lue said he wasn’t expecting miracles from the nine-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer. The Clippers, Lue said, “want Russ to be Russ.”
That’s what they got on his debut Friday, a performance of 17 points, 14 assists and seven turnovers against Sacramento that wasn’t all that different from the late stages of his Lakers tenure, except Lue played him during crunch time. Or times of crisis, as it turned out.
The question after the Clippers’ entertaining but staggering 176-175 double-overtime loss to the Kings wasn’t whether Russ will be Russ. It was who do the Clippers want to be?
For their championship they hope to have a shot at becoming a reality, they can’t be the team that flipped the ball 25 times on Friday and became partners in the second highest scoring game in NBA history, with only the combined total behind in a 186–184 triple overtime victory by Detroit over Denver on December 13, 1983. The Clippers entered Friday’s game ranked fourth in NBA points allowed per game with 111.1. The Kings had 111 points when Malik Monk hit a three-point shot 18 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The Clippers’ biggest problem on Friday was that he didn’t fit Westbrook into a lineup that was drastically changed at the trade deadline and got messed up again when they signed him after the Lakers traded him to Utah and the Jazz expired. bought out. Scoring was not a problem as they set a franchise record for points while making 60.2% of their shots, including a team-record 26 from three-point range.
They lost because they couldn’t take care of the ball and couldn’t make stops, and that should worry them. Their opponents shoot 52.8% over the last five games. “It’s crazy,” Westbrook said of Friday’s scoring. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of a game with so many points. Fresh off the All-Star break, I think.”
With a final score not far off the infamous defense-free annual All-Star exhibition.
“You can’t flip the basketball against a fast team like this and give them live ball layups, dunks, threes,” Lue said. “So we have to be better at that.”
Westbrook, who played 39 minutes and 27 seconds, had some good moments and received a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd at the Crypto.com Arena when he fouled with 1:49 left in the second overtime and the Clippers ahead from 175-169. He hadn’t heard those cheery noises often this season as he hung up his clothes in the Lakers locker room.
“It’s a blessing, just the excitement in the building,” Westbrook said. “The enthusiasm from the fans and the support they have, not just for me, but for the whole team has been amazing, and hopefully we can keep that going as the season progresses and I will do my part by playing as hard as I can, if I get the chance.”
The Clippers see him as the point guard they haven’t been able to find for a long time, an addition to Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and not the third side of a triangle as he should be with the Lakers alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Doing his bit for his new team meant “just trying to find ways to be effective while I’m on the floor, and whatever is being asked of me,” he said. “Screening, rolling, handling, whatever that may be. To cut. Just try to do different things to affect the game. Using my IQ to make plays for others.”
He had more assists (14) than field goal attempts (13), so some of it worked.
“It’s about what I imagined,” George said of Westbrook’s attack on his debut. “The reason why I was so high on Russ being part of this team is what he can bring, and we’ve seen flashes of it tonight.”
And flashes of his defensive shortcomings, but he was hardly alone there. “I thought he was great,” Lue said. “I’m still learning the offense, still learning what guys like about basketball and running plays and things like that, but I thought he did really well.”
Lue said he kept Westbrook in the game late in the fourth quarter and first overtime because the Kings had applied good ball pressure and “the pressure didn’t bother him”. Lue also said that Westbrook had “retired a lot of games in his career, you know,” which seemed more like wishful thinking than an analysis of Westbrook’s recent seasons. Lue did acknowledge that he should have given more playing time to Terance Mann, who had been moved to the bench due to Westbrook’s arrival and only played 17:32.
The Clippers have completed their final 20 games, a streak they will launch with a visit to Western Conference leader Denver on Sunday and at home to Minnesota on Tuesday. Westbrook said he planned to watch the movie of Friday’s game and do his homework to prepare. “Just how I can help make the game even easier for them so they don’t have to work so hard,” he said, “and, you know, we’ll get there.”
Russ will be Russ, in a good way and in a bad way. Whether the Clippers can become the champions they’ve always envisioned is less certain.