Despite the missed shots, turnovers, and blown defensive assignments, Russell Westbrook’s first game with the Lakers was still littered with minor moments that displayed the kind of basketball brilliance that has fueled his future Hall of Fame career. As LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Frank Vogel all mentioned in their postgame remarks, it will take some time for Russ to figure out how to fit alongside two other superior players, a dynamic he’s just now experiencing for the first time in his 14th NBA season.
When the game slowed down in front of Russ, asking him to probe a well-positioned defense for an offensive advantage, far too often he succumbed to taking the kinds of pull-up jumpers that the Warriors surely hoped he’d take.
Below, Jordan Poole went under Dwight Howard’s screen, daring Westbrook to take a shot he was unlikely to make.
Juan Toscano-Anderson practically begged Russ to walk into this pull-up:
These kinds of shots typify the nadir of what will be the Russell Westbrook experience this season. In stark contrast to the loud misses, Russ was able to help the Lakers in a few distinct areas.
At least twice, Westbrook created an advantage for the Lakers by posting up against a less physically imposing guard on the right block. He was able to shovel the ball past Stephen Curry to a cutting Anthony Davis for a layup:
Later, he powered through Moses “Mody Mooses” Moody for an easy deuce from the same spot:
And when the moment called for Westbrook to act before overthinking, he proved especially capable. On another couple of plays, Russ deployed his still elite athleticism to save Laker possessions — a contribution that didn’t show up in his triple-single box score:
As a point of comparison, this isn’t something we ever saw Dennis Schroder do, and likely wouldn’t see from Buddy Hield, the latter of whom was much-thirsted for on Twitter last night.
While his defensive attention occasionally waned like when he was torched on a Jordan Poole back-cut that led to LeBron’s outstanding block at the rim, he became a harbinger of chaos when engaged in the play.
Nice work here from Russ to trap the box on the drive and for AD to sink down to take Russ' man pic.twitter.com/FCKEDhFUjl— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) October 20, 2021
Maybe most impressive, however, was Westbrook’s ability to create advantages with his all-time-great-level passing vision. Even though he didn’t get a point, rebound, or assist for his contribution here, Russ’ pass created the opportunity that led to the Lakers’ highlight of the night:
Before even catching DJ’s pass, Russ looks ahead to scan the floor and sees Bazemore streaking upcourt with a half-step on Curry. His dime falls not an inch too short (which would have been within the reach of Curry) nor too long (which would have led Baze out of bounds). It was Westbrook’s perfectly placed pass into space that allowed the ensuing flurry of transition excellence to occur.
While his homecoming debut was anything but the coronation Westbrook surely hoped for, Russ’ displays of superlative talent in the opener are indicative of the building block that LeBron’s Lakers will find ways to coalesce around down the road.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.