A Lakers fan in a purple jacket, sitting along the right baseline, threw his hands in the air in protest of the shot going up, then clutched his face as he left. Standing near midcourt, LeBron James and Anthony Davis turned their palms to the sky as if to ask, “Why? Longtime Lakers broadcaster Bill McDonald moaned on the telecast, “No, Russ, no.”
Welcome to another awkward day in Westbrook’s life, where opponents beg him to shoot, teammates often seem confused by his decisions, and the home crowd can’t take any more misses.
The Lakers fell to 0-3 with a 106-104 loss to the Blazers on Sunday, blowing a seven-point lead in the final two minutes to end a demoralizing first week. Portland’s comeback was led by Damian Lillard, who poured in 41 points, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Westbrook’s latest late-game shenanigans.
While Westbrook’s pride led him to nine All-Star selections, the 2017 MVP award and an NBA record 194 triple-doubles, it is now the leading cause of his downfall. At 33, he doesn’t draw fouls and finish at the rim like he did in his prime. His shaky three-point shot has completely abandoned him, and his mid-range pulls are no longer reliable enough to keep defenses honest. Although he is shooting only 28.9 percent from the floor and 8.3 percent from deep this season, he can’t help himself. If someone gives him a chance, he takes it.
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Lakers coach Darwin Hamm brought Westbrook back into the game with about five minutes left in the game and Los Angeles leading 98-90. Blazers coach Chauncey Billups responded by switching center Jusuf Nurkic to Westbrook, deploying the Bosnian big man as a shortstop. Instead of giving up the left side of the court, Nurkic intentionally played so far away from Westbrook that he could take an uncontested jumper wherever he wanted.
The simple strategy worked brilliantly. With just over three minutes left, Westbrook missed a 3-pointer that quickly led to a Lillard 3-pointer on the other end. Then, with Los Angeles leading by one point with less than 30 seconds left, Westbrook pulled up his final wayward jumper instead of milking the clock or driving to the basket. As Nurkic lay in the paint, Westbrook pulled up a 15-footer with 18 seconds left for a shot, prompting collective disbelief from James, Davis, McDonald and thousands of groaning fans.
“I’m not really sure what to do.” [when centers switch on to me]but I’m just trying to do the best I can,” said Westbrook, who explained that he was trying to go two-on-one to give the Lakers their final possession.
Hamm expressed his displeasure, saying Westbrook should have driven to the hoop to try to draw a foul on Nurkic.
“If you’re going to go two-on-one, I think it’s got to be either downhill to attack the rim or downhill to pull and shoot,” he said. “I felt like we agreed on that.”
At first glance, Hamm’s candid recording was refreshing. James, by comparison, adopted an evasive approach to questions about Westbrook’s poor play, suggesting on Sunday that reporters “tried[ing] to set me up to say something”.
Dig deeper, and it’s clear the time has come for Ham to take a tougher stance with Westbrook, whose $47 million contract has proven difficult to trade. When Hamm was hired in June to replace the fired Frank Vogel, he promised to hold Westbrook to a higher standard of accountability.
Hamm’s first test came when he experimented with benching Westbrook in the Lakers’ preseason finale. Westbrook left the game five minutes into the game, citing a strained hamstring. Later, Westbrook said he “absolutely” felt the move to a different unit contributed to his injury.
“I’ve been doing the same thing for 14 years straight,” he said. “Honestly, I didn’t even know what to do before the game. To be honest, I was trying to figure out how to try and stay warm and relaxed.”
Richard Jefferson, ESPN analyst led by a chorus of onlookers who felt Westbrook was “sending a message” by using the injury talk as a veiled threat to dissuade Hamm from benching him in the future. Hamm said he resolved the situation with Westbrook, who immediately returned to the starting lineup.
After the Portland game, Hamm said he brought Westbrook back late because he wanted “another athletic defender” to help defend against Lillard. If that was the goal, there were other qualified options, including Austin Reaves and Juan Toscano-Anderson. If Hamm instead leans toward a live star who expects to play in big moments, he should examine the Pacific Division for examples of a healthier alternative.
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Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue used an unconventional rotation that kept franchise power forward Kawhi Leonard on the bench until midway through the second quarter. Leonard, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is limited in minutes, and keeping time on the court ensures he can be fresh in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams benched Chris Paul for the final six minutes of a 107-105 opening night win over the Dallas Mavericks. Paul is a first-time Hall of Famer who led the Suns to the 2021 Finals, but the 37-year-old shooting guard went just 1-for-6 against Dallas and was replaced by backup Cameron Payne.
Leonard and Paul are better and more successful players than Westbrook; if they can sit up early or late, so can he. Trade-offs are necessary as stars age, and smart players understand the need to evolve their games and expectations.
A year after their failed experiment, the Lakers must have learned by now that Westbrook’s pride blinds him from that kind of honest self-assessment. Until the divorce frees all parties, Hamm is the only thing standing between Westbrook and his worst impulses.
“We don’t have time for feelings or for people to be in their feelings,” Hamm said. “We’re trying to turn this thing around.”
Surely he understands whose feelings have to be hurt first.