It was easy to envision a worst-case scenario after the Lakers benched Russell Westbrook against the Indiana Pacers only to lose anyway. To predict fractures between the former star and head coach Frank Vogel, to see the justifiably proud Westbrook burned enough by the humiliating benching to tune out Vogel moving forward.
Thankfully for the Lakers, that does not appear to be what’s happening. While Westbrook admitted in the aftermath that he was “disappointed” about being benched, he said he was more disappointed that the team had lost with him on the sidelines. He also made it clear that he’s self-aware enough to know that he needs to play better for this team to have any chance of reaching their championship goals.
In a 116-105 win against the (admittedly very bad) Magic on Friday night, that’s exactly what Westbrook did. Despite one particularly high-profile lowlight, Westbrook was actually mostly quite good against Orlando, scoring 18 points, dishing 7 assists and snatching 11 rebounds while finishing second on the team in plus-minus (+11). He wasn’t perfect, finishing with three turnovers and shooting 8-17 from the field, but he did far more positive things than negative ones, despite which end of that spectrum most of the basketball internet chooses to shine a brighter light on.
Vogel said he never had any doubt that Westbrook would bounce back the right way.
“Russ is a high-character guy,” Vogel said after the win. “We knew he was gonna respond. We communicated afterwards to make sure that he understood what was going on, that we were just coaching to win the game, and to turn the page onto Orlando. And he did a great job of maintaining that focus, and we’re all committed to this group getting the job done.”
Westbrook clearly wanted to put the whole Pacers incident behind him, telling the media “I think you know my reaction” to being benched.
“You read it. I said I was upset about it. More upset that we didn’t win the game, that’s the most important part, and after that, like I said, I’ve been here. I’ve been doing my job since Day One, and been doing everything that’s been asked of me since I got here,” Westbrook said. “I’ll continue to do that for the betterment of the team.”
Asked about what his communication has been like with Vogel, Westbrook paused for several seconds before saying “I think the communication is fine.”
“Frank made a decision that he felt was best,” Westbrook continued. “My job as a player and professional is to do my job, continue to find ways to be able to help impact winning, and that’s all I was thinking about and turning the page to do. And that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Vogel said he wouldn’t divulge the details of his talk with Westbrook, only saying that “it was just along the lines of ‘let’s get ready for Orlando.’” And for his part, Westbrook couldn’t say if he ever imagined a week like this — filled with rumors about Vogel’s job security and the front office giving their embattled head coach permission to bench his star — would be part of the Lakers’ season.
“I don’t know what to expect. I’m honestly thankful to wake up every morning,” Westbrook said. “If I wake up, I’m blessed to be able to do that, and then I’ll take the day, take what happens that day as that comes.”
And for as long as those days continue to see both with the Lakers, Vogel says they “still believe” that this team can reach its ultimate goals.
“It’s been bumpy throughout the course of the year, but we’re committed,” Vogel said.
Whether the Lakers are still “committed” to their coach whose seat is so hot you could cook eggs on it or their former star who has been in more internet salary dump proposals than highlight reels moving forward remains to be seen.
But for as long as both of them are here, maybe they can find some common ground in that they’re both stuck in this unexpected foxhole vs. their scapegoat-targeting front office together. And for as long as they’re under fire, they may as well try to make things work despite their differences, and no matter how far askew from their own expectations this season has gone. For now, it’s all they can do.
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