In a move that was perhaps long overdue, the Lakers moved Russell Westbrook to the bench on Friday against the Wolves for the first time in his season-plus with the team. Despite him blaming his hamstring injury that kept him out on Wednesday against the Denver on being benched in the preseason and the Lakers being without Anthony Davis due to lower back soreness, Westbrook was still demoted from the starting lineup.
And in at least a bit of a surprise, Westbrook responded with easily his best outing of the season. After starting the game by missing his first five shots, Russ finished the game by hitting 6-12 from the field for 18 points, eight rebounds, three assists with a steal and a block.
“My hat’s off to him once again,” head coach Darvin Ham said after the game. “Came off (the bench) and shows the type of impact he can have in that reserve role and shoring up our bench and not just coming in and trying to maintain anything but coming in and taking it up a notch. He was great in that role tonight and I look forward to seeing him in it more once we start getting healthy body backs.”
More than just a strong stat line, Russ had a burst and athleticism that hadn’t been seen not just this season, but for most of his time in Los Angeles. He got out on the break, got downhill and finished around the rim despite Rudy Gobert typically being an impediment in the paint.
It’s as encouraging a performance as Russ has had since his second-half outburst against Charlotte last season. He looked like something resembling old Russell Westbrook and clearly embraced his newly-found role.
LeBron James on Russell Westbrook's performance:— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 29, 2022
"He was great. Definitely catapulted us. He was great all game."
There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about this. If Russ does actually embrace running second units and having his minutes staggered more drastically with LeBron’s, there’s at least a path where those two can have success. Even on Wednesday, there were moments the two excelled with one another as well.
Russ seemed to feed off the energy of bench players like Wenyen Gabriel and, along with a breakout performance from Troy Brown, Jr., Russ helped guide the Lakers back into the game with that second unit. In 19 minutes together, the three-man pairing of Russ, Gabriel and Austin Reaves had a 25.9 net rating on Friday.
Ultimately, this did all come in a loss and that should be noted. But in a season with so few positives. there was a lot to build on from Friday’s game. If the Lakers can get healthy and Russ continues embracing this role, the Lakers may have finally found something resembling a solution, even if only temporary, to their biggest problem.