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 Friday in his debut, a 17-point, 14-assist, seven-turnover performance against Sacramento that wasn’t so different from the late stages of his Lakers tenure except that Lue played him during crunch time. Or crunch times, as it turned out.
The question after the Clippers’ entertaining but appalling 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 hopes to have a chance of becoming reality they can’t be the team that turned the ball over 25 times on Friday and became a partner in the second-highest-scoring game in NBA history, trailing only the combined total in a 186-184 triple overtime victory by Detroit over Denver on Dec. 13, 1983. The Clippers entered Friday’s game ranked fourth in the NBA points allowed per game at 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 Friday wasn’t fitting Westbrook into a lineup that was drastically reconfigured at the trade deadline and scrambled again when they signed him after the Lakers had traded him to Utah and the Jazz bought out his contract. Scoring wasn’t 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 get stops, and that should concern them. Their opponents are shooting 52.8% over the last five games. “It’s crazy,” Westbrook said of Friday’s scoring spree. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a game with that many points. Fresh off the All-Star break, I guess.”
With a final score that wasn’t far off the notoriously defense-free annual All-Star exhibition.
“You can’t turn the basketball over against a fast team like this and give them live ball layups, dunks, threes,” Lue said. “So we’ve got to be better with that.”
Westbrook, who played 39 minutes and 27 seconds, had some good moments and received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd at Crypto.com Arena when he fouled out with 1:49 left in the second overtime and the Clippers leading 175-169. He hadn’t heard those happy sounds much this season while hanging his clothes in the Lakers’ locker room.
“It’s a blessing, just the excitement in the building,” Westbrook said. “The enthusiasm from fans and just the support, that they have, not just for me, but for the overall team was great, and hopefully we can be able to keep that going as the season goes along and I’ll do my part by playing as hard as I can, when given an opportunity.”
The Clippers see him as the point guard they’ve long been unable to find, a complement to Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and not the third side of a triangle, as he was supposed to be with the Lakers alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Doing his part with his new team meant “just trying to find ways to be effective while I’m on the floor, and whatever’s asked of me,” he said. “Screening, rolling, handling, whatever that may be. Cutting. Just trying to do different things to impact the game. Using my IQ to be able to make plays for others.”
He had more assists (14) than field-goal attempts (13), so that part of it worked.
“It’s about what I imagined,” George said of Westbrook’s fit in his debut. “The reason why I was high on Russ being a part of this team is what he can bring, and we just saw flashes of it tonight.”
And flashes of his defensive shortcomings, but he hardly was alone there. “I thought he was great,” Lue said. “Still learning the offense, still learning where guys like the basketball and running the plays and things like that, but I thought he did a really good job.”
Lue said he kept Westbrook in the game late in the fourth quarter and the first overtime because the Kings had been exerting good ball pressure and “the pressure doesn’t bother him.” Lue also said Westbrook had “pulled out a lot of games in his career, you know,” which sounded 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 was shifted to the bench because of Westbrook’s arrival and played only 17:32.
The Clippers are down to their final 20 games, a stretch they’ll launch with a visit to Western Conference-leading Denver on Sunday and at home against Minnesota on Tuesday. Westbrook said he planned to look at the film of Friday’s game and do his homework to prepare. “Just how I can be able to help make the game even more easier for them, so they don’t have to work as hard,” he said, “and, you know, we’ll get there.“
Russ will be Russ, in ways both good and bad. Whether the Clippers can be the champions they’ve always imagined is less certain.