White AirPods in his ears, his gaze locked onto the Sacramento highlights playing on a locker-room television, Russell Westbrook bobbed his head Friday night at a locker a few feet down the Crypto.com Arena hallway from his old one.
Situated within new digs and a new offense and surrounded by new teammates, the former Laker and newest Clipper prepared for his first opportunity to show a new side: One in which the former most valuable player could quell his most damaging traits, emphasize his most useful, all while raising the Clippers’ potential.
What followed was the second-highest scoring game in NBA history, a 176-175 fever dream of points and pace displaying one improbable Sacramento Kings win, two overtimes, defense that wouldn’t have looked 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 imprint left all over the debut of his fifth team in five seasons in ways that ran the spectrum from positive to puzzling.
This was no minor stage on which to debut a new starter in Westbrook. 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 final matchup next week.
Westbrook cut into the lane with his drives, drawing 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 tried setting screens, so often a rarity of his game, even if they led to a pair of illegal defense calls, and pushed the ball upcourt when given a sliver of room. Westbrook closed a breakneck first half with a left-handed finger-roll layup, then his drive in transition created enough room to dump off 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 scoring 80 or more in a half, and only the second time this season two teams had each scored 75 or more in a half. With defense optional for both teams, before the fourth quarter had even begun, Westbrook had already become the first Clipper to record at least 10 assists in their team debut since Sam Cassell, 18 years ago.
Yet for all of the spotlight on Westbrook and what his addition could mean, he represents just one question the Clippers must answer to realize their title ambitions. Even more were revealed Friday, with 25 turnovers yielding 42 points for the Kings.
Four in a row changed the game during a disastrous fourth-quarter stretch.
Leading by 11 with 3:18 left, the Clippers turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions — turnovers by Westbrook, two by George and an offensive foul by Powell — then missed a shot on a fifth to see their lead sliced to 147-146 with only 82 seconds to play.
With the Clippers leading 153-150 with only 8.5 seconds left in regulation and coach Tyronn Lue opting not to foul, Westbrook guarded inbounds passer Malik Monk, then turned his head to watch De’Aaron Fox dribble long enough to lose Monk beyond the far three-point line. It was enough time for Monk to get off the a shot to send a game that had been an 11-point Clippers lead three minutes earlier into overtime, as Westbrook scrambled to challenge the shot.
In overtime, Westbrook’s corner three-pointer pushed the lead to four, and when Paul George missed two free throws, a putback by Nicolas Batum extended it to six with three minutes left.
Again, the Clippers could not hold it. Improving their late-game offensive execution was one reason the team sought Westbrook’s ballhandling experience, but a possession of isolation yielded a missed jumper by George, and missed putback by Leonard, and a second overtime period was required.
Westbrook received a rowdy ovation after fouling out in the second overtime, finished 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, it will need him to be at his most willing to play contributor and not savior, pushing pace and reaching the paint while deferring to teammates on a roll such as Leonard, who returned from the league’s All-Star break by scoring 21 points in the third quarter.
Leonard’s scoring burst included six three-pointers, the last when Leonard dribbled on one defender, Monk, and fired a three-pointer as a second, Trey Lyles, rushed over for help in vain. When double-teams followed again on the next two possessions, Leonard’s passes led to a pull-up jumper by Marcus Morris Sr. and, then, an open corner three-pointer by Batum, the offense running as efficiently as it had all season.
During what Clippers brass called honest, upfront conversations with Westbrook prior to his buyout in Utah earlier this month, the team never promised Westbrook a starting role, but his relationship with Lue, and the coach’s rock-solid trust in Westbrook even though the Lakers were happy to move on from him after 130 games, made his debut as a starter likely ever since he officially signed his rest-of-season contract. for the league minimum Wednesday afternoon.
That trust was evident in Lue’s decision to keep Westbrook on the floor until he fouled out with 1:49 to play in double overtime.
But there was another factor, too: If the Clippers were going to replace starting guard Terance Mann in favor of Westbrook, there was urgency to do it sooner than delay the eventual at a time when time is most precious, with only 20 games remaining.
“We don’t have a lot of time to really experiment,” Lue said before tipoff, “because we still got to win games.”
In multiple ways Friday, they lost their chance to win a critical one.