Russell Westbrook Is Always Himself
10:16 AM EDT on April 17, 2023
Locked within the mind of every NBA fan who fought on the side of "yes" during the Is Russell Westbrook Actually Good? wars that raged throughout the 2010s, there is an idea we dare not think. It comes from our understanding that Westbrook, who only ever had a two-fingered grip on his jump shot in the best of times, is not fit to take part in an NBA offense. It also comes from those moments in which Westbrook, now 34 years old, can still outclass everyone around him in terms of burst, athleticism, and straight-up doggedness. We hold the reality of Russell Westbrook in our minds and we think the forbidden thought: What if he could just stop shooting the ball all the time? What if he just dedicated every second he was on the court to pushing the pace, grabbing rebounds, and flying around on defense? What would that look like?
These are foolish questions to ask out loud, precisely because of the fact that Westbrook shot 3-of-19 from the floor in the Clippers' Game 1 win over the Suns on Sunday night. But also, it's impossible not to ask these questions out loud, precisely because of everything else that Westbrook did in Game 1. He finished with nine points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks, two steals, and the kind of closing sequence that one might associate with a superstar player.
In the fourth quarter, Westbrook grabbed six of his rebounds (four of them on the offensive glass), blocked two shots, and stole the ball once. The rebounds are what stood out, as one of them involved him skying over Torrey Craig to grab a one-handed offensive board and then recycling the ball to Kawhi Leonard, who hit a three to put the Clippers up 103-99 with 2:35 left to play.
"At this position, humbly speaking, nobody is a better rebounder than me," said Westbrook after the game. It's hard to disagree with that when you see him flying through the air like he was on Sunday, and it's equally hard to let go of the idea that anyone who can make plays like that in his 15th NBA season can be a valuable asset to a playoff team.
A few possessions later, with the Clips up 109-108, Westbrook just refused to let the Suns clear the defensive glass. He popped up in the paint to grab another offensive board off a Leonard miss. When Terance Mann bricked a three from the corner on the Clips' second shot of the possession, Westbrook out-jumped the Suns' front line and forced Deandre Ayton to tip the ball out of bounds. The Suns tipped the ball out of bounds again after a missed three by Westbrook, and then, finally, Westbrook drew a foul on Devin Booker in the post. That sequence started with 1:08 left on the clock, and by the time Westbrook stepped to the line there were 17 seconds left to play. Westbrook hit both free throws, and then went ahead and won the game on the other end of the floor.
There he was, in all of his glory, the Russell Westbrook of our dreams and nightmares. Designed to torment as it was, Westbrook's Game 1 performance shouldn't be interpreted as evidence of anything other than the fact that he is always going to be exactly who he is. The player who grabbed all those rebounds, wisely posted up Booker instead of settling for a jumper with the game on the line, and made one of the best clutch defensive plays you'll ever see is inextricably linked with the player who missed 16 of his 19 shots and menacingly revealed his belly to a fan at halftime:
The question to ask isn't "Why can't Westbrook just do all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff?" but rather "Is he, in this specific game, going to do more good than bad?" The madness that can be inflicted on a coach who is forced to try to answer that question on a regular basis is why Westbrook was ditched by the Lakers earlier this season. The man is neither poison nor antidote, but somehow both. What to do with that fact is Ty Lue's problem, not ours, which means we are free to just let go of any questions and enjoy the Russell Westbrook experience for what it is. He won Game 1 through sheer force of will. He might lose Game 2 for the same reason.