The Lakers led the Blazers 97-90 with 4:42 left in the fourth quarter on Sunday. That was when Russell Westbrook, who had been riding the bench for the last 11 minutes of play, re-entered the game. The Blazers won, 106-104. Typically it would be ridiculous to ascribe such a reversal in fortune to a single lineup change; there are so many moving parts in basketball that you can’t point the finger at one player. But Westbrook is mounting a stirring, beautiful, and hopefully season-long case to make all fingers point at him. One player really can make the difference, so long as he can’t score from any region of the floor, cat-naps off the ball, and gunks up the lane because he’s being guarded by an indifferent center. One player can make a discrete decision so defiantly stupid that all blame is funneled to one location on the floor: it’s him! With 27.3 seconds in regulation, a one-point Lakers lead, and 18 seconds of shot clock to burn, Westbrook—who had made 3 of his 16 jump shots on the season—plopped a 16-footer on the back iron.
Gerrymandered stats have gotten out of hand, but the second line here does tell you something about the revolutionary nature of Westbrook’s decision:
So it’s no surprise that Westbrook’s star teammates were visibly disgusted by that decision:
Lakers coach Darvin Ham, who is just three games into the Lakers season and already a battle-hardened Westbrook apologist, said diplomatically that he supported the choice to go for two-for-one with a one point lead, but “just wished [Russ] had attacked the rim.” LeBron James was asked about the decision to go for a two-for-one, and he needed a bait-takingly high number of words to say he was not taking the bait. Does Russell Westbrook listen to this and feel at ease?
“I don’t know, I feel like this is an interview to try and set me up to say something,” he said. “I can tell that you guys are in the whole Russell Westbrook category right now, I don’t like to lose, I hate to lose at any—I don’t care what happens throughout the course of my season, throughout the course of my career, I hate to lose, especially the way we had this game. But give credit to Portland. You guys can write about Russ and all the things you guys want to try to talk about Russ, but I’m not up here to do that. I won’t do it. I said it over and over. And it’s not my—it’s not who I am.”
The Clippers threw seven-footer Ivica Zubac on Westbrook in their win over the Lakers on Thursday and suffered no ill effects. After Sunday’s game, which saw 6-foot-11 Jusuf Nurkic devote a quarter of his attention to the Lakers’ bricklayer-in-chief, Blazers coach Chauncey Billups explained the defensive game plan: “We were just going to kind of play off of Russ.” Unless Ham has the conscience to yank Westbrook, LeBron and Anthony Davis are going to try to make their two-man dance work with a permanent rim protector loitering in the paint. They haven’t been blessed with spacing from the perimeter, either: The Lakers are shooting 21 percent from three, including Westbrook’s 1-for-12. The season is less than a week old, the team is 0-3, and I hope this never ends.