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Russell Westbrook Has “Great Game,” Makes Zero Shots In Lakers Loss

Russell Westbrook watches from the bench.
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

They say only casuals, stat-boys, and crotchety old Norman Dale types make the mistake of thinking that defense, spacing, screening, and assorted other tryhard activities are as useful to a basketball team as individual scoring ability: the assortment of refined skills a True Hooper uses to seek, and get, a bucket. To this I say: Folderol! No less an authority on True Hoopage than Lakers head coach Darvin Ham evangelizes a nearly opposite view. Ham—who, yes, fine, averaged just 2.7 points per game in his own not-storied NBA career—has specifically asked his Lakers point guards to focus on expending their energy primarily on the defensive end, and to focus their offensive efforts on cutting, screening, spacing the floor, and moving the ball to open teammates. Ham and I—and, yes, fine, probably also a lot of crotchety old Norman Dale types—find your preoccupation with "buckets" and "scoring" and "making the ball go into the basket in a game where points are awarded for making the ball go into the basket" myopic, reductive, and frankly a little bit vulgar.

A lot of good and useful basketball can be played by a guy who expends most of his energy on the defensive end. Take, for example, Lakers point guard Russell Westbrook. Thursday night, in a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Westbrook played perhaps his best defensive game in half a decade. He switched across matchups with very few of the mental lapses that dogged him during the part of his career when bucket-getting was his primary occupation. He was stout at the point of attack, both out on the perimeter, where in previous seasons he's been vulnerable to straight-line drives, and on the low block, where instead of digging in he has often opted for high-risk, matador-style chicanery. Despite Westbrook's evident unhappiness with his situation in Los Angeles, he showed Thursday night that he is capable of clearing out all distractions and pouring himself into the role he's been given, which is to do Patrick Beverley shit while making nearly four times as much in salary as teammate Patrick Beverley.

This professionalism was exemplified in a heroic fourth-quarter sequence, when the Clippers were determined to test Westbrook's defensive fortitude by forcing him into the toughest available assignment. With under five minutes left and the Lakers within striking distance, resurrected Clippers point guard John Wall burned some clock on the left wing while Westbrook fought a desperate battle to deny low-post position to similarly resurrected Clippers alpha-scorer Kawhi Leonard. Three Clippers cleared out to the offense's weak side, but Westbrook fought over Leonard's massive, endless arms and established himself between passer and target, necessitating a tricky over-the-top entry pass. Leonard called for the ball and Wall lobbed it down there, but Westbrook was ready, and pounced, leaping high and intercepting the pass, then immediately firing the ball ahead to teammate Lonnie Walker and triggering a valuable (if wasted) fast break.

On the very next play, the Clippers made another, more concerted attempt at exploiting the same matchup. Leonard fought more aggressively for the same post position, this time with a taller teammate—the 6-foot-8 Paul George—to send him the ball. Once again, Westbrook fought over the top, fronted Leonard, timed the pass perfectly, and came down with a spectacular steal. This was stirring stuff!

Those were two of a game-high five steals collected by Westbrook on the night. Five steals! And it wasn't just a few flashy instances of successful ball-hawking: Clippers players made just two of seven shot attempts with Westbrook as the primary defender, and zero of three from beyond the arc. And—since you are so pathetically obsessed with this whole "offense" thing—I'll have you know that Westbrook accounted for just one (1) of the Lakers' nine turnovers Thursday. Call it the Ham Special: Los Angeles's rookie head coach wanted a point guard who digs in on defense, takes care of the ball, and considers the team's offense largely someone else's problem, and he sure got it! Wow!

Do not look at that video! You are wanting to discuss Westbrook's shooting. This is rude! This fixation of yours on bucket-getting, given all of the important context offered here today, is unhealthy! It's obvious you want to make a big deal out of the fact that the Lakers lost Thursday night by six points, and that Westbrook scored fewer than six points, and that in fact he scored two points, and that in fact zero of those points came on his 11 shots, and that in fact he scored those zero points on 11 shots while the Clippers treated him as a place to hide their most vulnerable defender, and that in fact his glaring ineptitude as a shooter and finisher makes the job of bucket-getting that much more difficult for his superior teammates, and that in fact the team's overall shocking dearth of capable bucket-getters is a direct consequence of paying $47 million to a point guard who cannot function in their offense. Gross! Totally gross and totally unfair.

I'll have you know that no less an authority on True Hooping than Lakers teammate LeBron James felt that Westbrook had—and I am quoting him verbatim—a "great game." It was James who complained after the team's opening-night loss to the Golden State Warriors that the Lakers roster isn't "constructed of great shooting," and yet even he recognizes that some things in basketball—the sport where you win by putting a ball into a basket—are more important than putting the ball into the basket. "Defensively, he was in tune, he was locked in, he pushed the tempo," says James, of Westbrook. "He just didn't make any shots. And that's OK." That's OK, says history's best basketball player. Who are you to disagree?

Asked about his performance Thursday night, Westbrook was similarly upbeat. "Solid," he summarized, in the loser's locker room. "Played hard. All you can ask for." Wait.

[Correction: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly said Westbrook scored zero points. The headline and body have been updated.]

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