It’s the second quarter in the Lakers’ final game before the All-Star break, and Anthony Davis is writhing on the ground in pain, holding his ankle. The worst is on everyone’s mind, and after the expletive-filled yell that Davis let out, it’s hard to blame them.
Besides AD, no one seems to be taking it worse than LeBron James, who stands above his fallen teammate, looking — and I don’t think this is a stretch — outright despondent. Whatever fleeting hopes still existed for the Lakers to make a run this season looked to be extinguished, and no one seemed to process it more quickly in real time than James.
When the game resumed after halftime, most of the team looked fairly lifeless. LeBron’s first shot is an errant 3 pointer where he barely looked to attack. On the next possession he commits a bad turnover. If this is what the rest of the game is really going to be like, we can all just go home. Maybe for the rest of the season.
However, one player seems to have not gotten the memo that something terrible has happened to the team, and that if they all stop trying now, no one will really blame them. One guy still seems to be playing with real energy. Even if the results aren’t that pretty — a turnover here, a missed jumper there — he’s going pretty hard and the intent, if nothing else, is to keep competing and see where that leads them.
Of all the different meanings “Russ being Russ” can take on, this one might be the most endearing.
Sometimes your biggest strength is also your greatest weakness.
After watching him for 50+ games, the thing that stands out to me most about Russell Westbrook is his obstinance. Russ is... hardheaded. The thing you think he shouldn’t do, he’ll do it anyway. And when it works, he’ll let you know. And when it doesn’t, he’ll do it again anyway, because maybe next time it will. It’s simultaneously his best and his worst quality as a player.
This makes sense if you’ve followed Russ during his career. He was never supposed to be drafted as high as he was. Was never supposed to be a point guard. Was never supposed to rack up assists or score like he has. Was never supposed to make so many All-Star games, be an All-NBA player, win an MVP, or recognized as one of the league’s 75 best players ever.
He got to the level he did by pretty much not paying attention to what others thought he could or should be.
So, the player who’s accomplished what he has, how he has, isn’t going to really care what anyone thinks. There’s real downsides to that, of course. We’ve seen him fail, sometimes in spectacular fashion, in the exact ways someone who plays the way he does is expected to fail. That he didn’t adjust or see how he was going to fail is rooted in the exact reason why he failed in the first place.
It’s the true conundrum for Russ as a player and, ultimately, could (will?) be the exact reason the Westbrook/Lakers experiment won’t end up working and why it, like his stints in Houston and Washington, may only last for a single season. Russ has too many flaws, but the one that matters most is that he earnestly seems to believe he just might overcome them simply by doing the things he’s always done.
Channeling that obstinance now, however, might be the best thing he can do for the Lakers. Just like in that Jazz game that AD was hurt in, the Lakers need the version of Russ who is too stubborn to understand that he’s actually not supposed to succeed now. They need him to be the guy so hardheaded that he simply won’t accept that these are circumstances that aren’t going to go his way.
That version of Russ — the guy who seemingly doesn’t know any better — can be a difference maker for the Lakers, not just in production, but more importantly, in attitude and spirit. Because, make no mistake, while LeBron James is the Laker’s best player and the person whose individual talents will matter most in whether the team wins or loses games, even he will need an emotional buoy who can help keep him on the path towards competing as hard as he can each night.
LeBron is no quitter of course, but he is a realist. And just like he saw this Lakers season flash before his eyes when AD went down, he also knows if his team is in a game or not night to night, and whether putting the gas pedal down will actually turn the tide or just amount to making a loss more respectable. He too, then, will need some inspiration to help bring out his best. And if it’s not going to be the otherworldly talent of Davis that provides it, Russ’ competitive spirit potentially can.
Don’t get me wrong, Russ will need to be productive too. In the fourth quarter of the team’s win over the Jazz, LeBron might have made all the highlight plays (while dapping up Aaron Donald in the process), but Russ also played some of the best crunch time basketball he has all season, going 3-5 from the field and scoring 9 of his 17 points while boasting a team best +13 in that final frame. Russ will need more nights like that one; more nights where his talent and tangible contributions align with whatever inspiration his irreverence provides.
Whether Russ actually can still access the level of play described above consistently remains to be seen. It’s more than fair to be skeptical that he can, and if you outright doubt it entirely, I understand why. He’s simply not been as good as anyone would have hoped he’d be to this point in the year, and the turbulent nature of his night to night play has exasperated many of us. Expecting that to change simply doesn’t feel reasonable.
That said, it’s now or never for Russ with these Lakers. There’s simply not enough time left in the season to continue to try to figure it out (as he’s been so fond of reminding us needs to happen). And no, it’s not the most ideal of situations to try to thrive. Not with AD out, and not with the team still unable to have that much-needed time together that can inspire their best basketball.
But, if history tells us anything, this is the time of the season where Westbrook is most primed to find his stride. In his final 20 games last season, Russ produced an ungodly 24/14/14 stat-line on 45% shooting while playing 40 minutes a night to lead the Wizards to the playoffs. The season before that, it was 31/7.5/6.5 on 51% shooting in nearly 37 minutes a night for a Rockets team that was looking like a micro-ball terror before a COVID hiatus led to the bubble.
The Lakers have 24 games left in this season, so again, the time is now. No one should be predicting Russ can hit that level of production down the stretch. I’m sure as hell not doing that now. But, there’s few other players in the history of the league who could possibly believe that they could go from what he has been so far to that level of play in the blink of an eye.
And, for the Lakers, that type obstinance could be exactly what they need right now.