Last night, the Los Angeles Lakers fell to 24-26 after a 117-114 road loss against the Charlotte Hornets. Although it was close in the end, the overall outcome was not surprising, as the team was without LeBron James and Anthony Davis while the two nursed a sore left knee and a sore wrist, respectively. And with the Lakers’ best two players out, the spotlight was squarely on Russell Westbrook to come out and perform well enough to make it a competitive game.
After the first half, it seemed we were on our way to another letdown from Westbrook and the team, as the score was 65-49 in favor of the Hornets at the break. The half included an embarrassing 3 points through the first six minutes of the first quarter as, unsurprisingly, the starting lineup of Westbrook, DeAndre Jordan, Stanley Johnson, Wayne Ellington, and Avery Bradley struggled to get anything going offensively.
Westbrook went to the locker room at halftime with only 5 points, shooting 1-3 from the field with a game-worst -27 plus-minus. However, he couldn’t have had a bigger turnaround in the second half, as he scored 30 points on 11-20 shooting, with his +16 plus-minus only trailing Carmelo Anthony’s +17 as the best marks in the half. Those 30 points were the most scored in a half by a Laker since Kobe Bryant’s 38 in the second half of his final game against the Jazz.
“It’s something that when the team needs me to do it, I can still do it,” Westbrook said when asked how it felt to be in such a good rhythm in the second half. “That’s the most important part. The unfortunate part is we didn’t win the game, but with my teammates and those guys giving me confidence to be aggressive and make the right reads, it was good to get that going.”
Although the Lakers definitely would have loved to have this type of performance from Russ in the many games where the team was without one of James and Davis, this was the first full game where both of those two guys were inactive. And it does seem that Westbrook can still turn it on under those circumstances, as he’s averaging 25.6 points per 36 minutes this season with them both off the court, compared to 15.1 when they’re both on.
However, as illustrated by the -3.2 plus-minus in those Russ on/LeBron and AD off minutes, compared to +2 with all three on the court — as well as a wide variety of other credible reasons — the Lakers still need LeBron and AD on the floor for this team to even come close to its championship aspirations. So given the fact that a trade involving Westbrook at the deadline seems unlikely, they’ll also have to figure out how to make it work with all three players on the court together.
“Yeah, I mean that’s the part that we’re trying to figure out,” Westbrook stated when asked about getting this type of performance in games his co-stars play in. “I think ultimately when myself and AD and Bron are on the court, we’ve got to be able to figure that out to where I can still keep my same speed and pace to the basket and allow me to make the game easy for them, and it’s something that we briefly talked about after the game. About positioning, and things they saw tonight from sitting on the bench to be able to help them out.
“So hopefully as we kind of move forward through this season and get ready for our run we can put some games together where we like the way we’re playing.”
Sadly, the Lakers are nearing the All-Star break, with little time remaining to get started on that “run” Westbrook is mentioning. There are only 32 games left in the season, and if James and Davis’ injuries are serious enough to keep them out of a few more games, the team may not have the necessary time to build enough continuity and cohesion between their three stars before having to face a top-seeded Western Conference team in the first round.
Because even though the trio has a +2.8 net rating together (with that increasing to a 5.9 net rating with all DeAndre Jordan minutes excluded), they’ve still only played 308 minutes across 16 games together. For comparison, the Suns’ trio of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Mikal Bridges has played 904 minutes together, with a much more common net rating amongst a team’s three best players of +9.7.
Assuming James and Davis return to the court sooner rather than later, hopefully the two sitting on the bench and having a new vantage point of Westbrook’s game will produce some discoveries that will help for the future run the team wants to go on. Because even if that run isn’t enough to get them out of the play-in tournament, sheer continuity and repetitions together will put the Big Three — and the Lakers as an extension — in a much better spot when they enter the postseason.