Russell Westbrook Is Just The Man To Salvage Dignity In Defeat
12:16 PM EDT on April 23, 2023
There's a theoretical version of this Clippers-Suns first-round series that is very different from the one currently headed for an unsatisfying and ungentlemanly five-game wrap. For one thing, a healthy Clippers team is one of maybe two outfits in the muddled Western Conference that can come close to matching the Suns for sheer star power. More importantly, a healthy Clippers team has the best two individual defenders in the series, is far deeper in genuine rotation-grade professionals, and can slide those pros into comfortable supplemental offensive roles around the shot-creation skills of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. In a series where Leonard and George are both healthy, Russell Westbrook is an energy guy, a fourth- or possibly even fifth-banana, stuck in a role for which he has never been all that well-suited, even after rehabbing somewhat his soured reputation during this half-season with Los Angeles's other team.
But the Clippers are not healthy, and never will be. George hasn't taken the court in a month. Leonard sprained his knee during an impressive 39 minutes of run in Los Angeles's Game 2 loss, and hasn't played since. Into their spots in all of Tyronn Lue's key lineups go Norman Powell and Eric Gordon. Powell and Gordon are good, versatile NBA players; the Clippers are set up beautifully with those two as sixth and seventh men. As big-minutes starters and closers in a series against a team featuring Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul, they're toast. In this injury-reshaped Clippers-Suns series, Westbrook goes from role player and possible millstone to offensive centerpiece. These Clippers absolutely cannot survive offensively without Westbrook's full-tilt playmaking. They also cannot survive with it, but there is no player in the NBA, possibly ever, more suited to leading a Light Brigade-esque no-hope charge into the teeth of an overwhelmingly superior force. The Clippers may be hopeless, but watching Westbrook fight like hell in this doomed mismatch objectively whips major ass:
Do not attempt to tell me that you don't want to pump your fist at Westbrook squaring up on Booker, throwing first a mean crossover at him and then a determined shoulder, and scoring through him as if he were made of half-set pudding. Or lining up against Durant in the corner, turning down the baited three-pointer, and then splashing a high-arcing pull-up directly in his mug. Or wrong-footing Torrey Craig into the toilet on a knifing drive and finishing with a huge dunk in traffic. The Suns did what you are supposed to do to defend Westbrook: They sagged off whenever he had the ball beyond the three-point arc, they dipped under high ball-screens and switched across matchups in order to deprive him of driving lanes, and they refused to send frantic help on his forays into the paint. And Westbrook kicked their asses! He made Booker look helpless, he scored over and around Durant, he treated the overmatched Landry Shamet with outright contempt, and he even went right at and through Deandre Ayton. He even knocked down three of six three-point attempts. Were it not for some uncharacteristically bad shooting from Powell and Marcus Morris Sr., and the general impossibility of getting consistent stops against Phoenix's three isolation maestros, Westbrook's effort might even have given the Clippers a shot at a win. Instead, they take the satisfaction of knowing they fought like hell, and even if that's the next closest thing to nothing, it's still not nothing.
This was Westbrook's second consecutive 30-point game, and his 14th career playoff game with at least 35 points. The last of these was way back in 2018, when Westbrook was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder, or what feels like several thousand lifetimes ago. The team dynamics were startlingly similar, in the sense that Westbrook's ballyhooed co-stars were basically absent—or worse than absent—in that game: George, in his first season with the Thunder, made just two of 16 shots and finished with five points; Carmelo Anthony scored seven points on seven shots and was dragged out ruthlessly and relentlessly by Utah's pick-and-rolls, and the Thunder lost his 26 minutes of run by a whopping 19 points. The Thunder had gone down 3–1 in that series and were heavy underdogs; Westbrook poured his guts out on the floor, salvaging personal pride and dignity even in a scenario where the battle and war were both all but lost.
It's a weird thing in the modern NBA, how a guy can be objectively a marvelous basketball player and also not very suited to the day-in, day-out business of winning basketball games. Saturday night, after the Suns had wrapped up what eventually was a fairly comfortable road playoff win, Durant and Chris Paul talked at the podium about their appreciation for Westbrook's basketball abilities. Durant observed that making jokes about Westbrook's game has become a fun pastime for NBA followers, but insisted that after Westbrook's playing career is over people will talk about him differently than they do now, with a level of appreciation that nowadays he is mostly denied.
It's unsatisfying and even irksome that both of those sentiments can be true while at the same time it can be true that Westbrook's whole deal is no longer all that conducive to team success. Westbrook almost requires a dysfunctional, low-wattage roster in order for his style to really sing, and even then it's not all that clear whether that singing amounts to much more than a sideshow. One of the stranger contradictions of following the modern NBA, with all of its efficiencies and advanced metrics and team-building constraints, is that it is possible to accept all of that about Westbrook and also consider yourself a Russ Fan. It's possible to nod your head appreciatively when his peers jump to his defense and to hoot and holler when he goes Psycho Mode for four quarters, and also to dread with your entire being the possibility that your team might be the next one to give him a professional playing contract. When your team is trying to build a consistent winner, the last thing you want is Westbrook out there using up 35 percent of their possessions. But when somebody else's team is left with nothing to strive for but dignity? Buddy, the only thing making me flip to that station is 40 minutes of Russell damn Westbrook, refusing to be tarnished in defeat.
For all the justifiable shit Westbrook takes for being blinkered about his capabilities and hard-headed about his role, his true defining characteristic as a professional athlete is fierce competitive pride. That trait may not be of any practical value to the Clippers, in the sense that probably nothing short of Leonard returning at full strength can forestall their elimination, bringing to yet another disappointing close a season that began with perfectly credible championship aspirations. But there's something undeniably stirring about the hopeless chivalry of refusing to go down without a real fight. Westbrook might not be the man for the job of leading the gutted Clippers to playoff glory, but he might just be the perfect man for the only job left.