For those who may be too young to remember Russell Westbrook’s best work, show them from the 1:08 mark in the fourth quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers 115-110, 2023 Game 1 playoff victory against the Phoenix Suns, to when the clock stops at 10.1 seconds.
Even though Westbrook is 34 years old and currently playing in his 15th NBA season, that stretch of play is the perfect microcosm of his career. The good, the bad, and the mind-blowing.
Let Russ Cook
This stretch begins following a Kawhi Leonard turnover. The Clippers had made three 3-pointers in a row — two from Leonard. He coughed up the ball, and Chris Paul went on to bury two free throws after the foul call.
The Clippers retained possession from that 1.08 mark until 17.7. How, because Westbrook was relentless. Leonard missed a fadeaway and Westbrook grabbed the offensive rebound — one of five for the night. Terance Mann attempted a corner 3-pointer that missed. Westbrook knocked the ball off of Deandre Ayton and possession remained with the Clippers.
Westbrook then attempted a 3-point shot that he of course missed, but the ball went out of bounds again off of Ayton. Westbrook had the ball at the top of the key and watched Leonard — who had scored 38 points — attempt to get open. It wasn’t working for Leonard and just like Westbrook would do when Kevin Durant failed to get proper positioning in Oklahoma City during the previous decade, he took matters into his own hands.
Westbrook got into the paint and drew a foul on an attempted fade away. He made both free throws. Then when the Suns came down the court, Devin Booker and his 24 points tried to take Westbrook to the hoop. Not only did Westbrook block the shot, but he threw the ball off Booker to get possession back for the Clippers with 10.1 seconds remaining on the clock.
What has made Westbrook so much fun to watch for 15 seasons is that he plays like a bull in a china shop. Maybe it’s not always the best basketball, but don’t act like if you saw a bull ravaging a china shop you wouldn’t stop and watch for a little while. That type of energy is captivating. It’s just not what is usually associated with NBA MVPs.
What sets Russ apart
Players like Dennis Rodman, Dillon Brooks, and Patrick Beverley make their living by always playing at 100 miles per hour. However, they would not be in the league if they didn’t go hard at all times. Westbrook is a truly gifted athlete. If he had some pace to his game, maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder would have won an NBA Championship when he and Kevin Durant were there.
Westbrook isn’t capable of playing any other way though, and that is what makes him such a compelling NBA character. He is in the red every night. For the Los Angeles Lakers, he was not a great fit. Not because playing hard is frowned upon in the NBA, but because he is not the athlete that he was five years ago. Combine that with his yearly salary and the talent that the Lakers jettisoned to acquire him, that relationship was destined for failure. Westbrook shot 3-19 against the Suns on Sunday night. The Lakers didn’t have a roster capable of enduring that inefficiency along with his defensive liabilities.
The Clippers need Westbrook revved all the way up with Paul George unable to play in this first-round series. Even without George they still have shooting and strong team defense.
The best contribution that Westbrook can make to the Clippers is to be himself. If they don’t need a human adrenaline shot at a particular moment he can be put on the bench, but when they need one with playoff experience Westbrook is ready to rip off his warmups.
They may not be able to find a 6-foot-7 scorer who doubles as a dependable defender, but what they do have is a 34-year-old cyclone that can cause havoc whenever unleashed.
While the Clippers don’t currently have the overall basketball talent to compete with the Suns, Leonard and a frenzied effort led by Westbrook just might be enough to get them to Round Two.