On the surface, the moment in the third quarter where Russell Westbrook capped off a Lakers run with a 3-pointer before turning to celebrate with the crowd wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for his career. A player who has built a reputation for his overwhelming energy and passion had it overflowing in that moment and turned to the sold out crowd to celebrate.
It doesn’t take digging, though, to realize the many layers that moment had both personally for Westbrook and for the Lakers as a team.
For Westbrook, a self-proclaimed Lakers fans as a kid that recalls watching championship parades, beating the Celtics while donning the purple and gold had to carry a bit more weight than any other regular season win even if he didn’t play it off as such after the game.
But for the Lakers as a whole, Westbrook’s 3-pointer was part of a third quarter where the hosts outscored their rivals 31-20. It was a full-circle moment for a Lakers team that was badly outplayed in the third quarter and second half of their matchup in Boston nearly three weeks ago.
It was around then that the Lakers, and Westbrook, placed a stronger emphasis on third quarters. After that performance in Boston, the team ranked 28th in third quarter net rating on the season at -20.3. Since that night, the team is second in net rating in the third quarter spanning the last eight games, including Tuesday, at +26.3.
“Our third quarters have been great, to be honest,” Davis said. “Where we kind of struggled at the beginning of the year, tonight we hold this team to 20 points in the third quarter. Just coming out of halftime with a better start and not coming out with those slow starts – turnovers, bad shots, transition, things like that.
“Once we lock in defensively and do what we did tonight, we’re a tough team to beat. We just have to continue to build off this game as far as a defensive standpoint and carry that into the next two games (against) Memphis and OKC.”
There isn’t any singular factor that turned the Lakers third quarters around just like there wasn’t any singular factor responsible for the issue to start. While the coaching staff continued to evaluate the performance of the team game in and game out, head coach Frank Vogel also challenged the team to put a greater emphasis on winning third quarters.
“It’s bigger than just challenging,” Vogel said. “We’re evaluating around the clock, every game that we play and making adjustments. We have a strong belief in what this group can accomplish. We know there’s going to be some bumps in the road early. This was expected to our group. We’re staying locked in, staying together and improving and we’re seeing growth each game. Sometimes there’s wins, sometimes there’s losses but we’re seeing growth each game.”
No one took the challenge more to heart than Westbrook. As the point guard of the team, Westbrook took it upon himself to make sure the Lakers avoided those slow starts as a team coming out of the locker room.
“As a player and especially as a point guard,” Westbrook said, “when you come out (after halftime), my job is to make sure our team is ready to go and when we’re not, I take that responsibility on myself. Just watching film and figuring out how I can not let us lull to sleep and make sure I keep my energy flowing in the right direction so my teammates can follow.”
In that aforementioned eight-game span where the Lakers have become one of the best teams in the league in third quarters, Westbrook is averaging 8.9 points per third quarter, the third-best mark in the league. His net rating in that span is +35.6.
Over the last eight games, he’s had third-quarter scoring outbursts of 18 points against the Knicks, 13 points against the Kings at home, 11 points in Sacramento and 15 points on Tuesday. Each has showcased what Westbrook still has left in the tank and what he can bring to this Lakers team.
But none likely meant quite as much as Tuesday’s did, in front of a sold out Staples Center crowd against the franchise’s storied rivals.
“That’s who I am,” Westbrook said. “That’s what I bring to the table. It’s what my teammates need from me. I want to be able to share my energy, my spirit with the rest of the fans, the rest of the world and have fun while doing it. This game is something I don’t take for granted so while I’m playing it, I like to have fun while doing it.”
Both he and the Lakers had plenty of fun on Tuesday in routing the Celtics to move back over .500, fun that was traced back to a strong third quarter and fun that can be traced back to Westbrook being uniquely — and impactfully — Westbrook.