The groans were audible — loudly audible — when Russell Westbrook received a pass in the corner with three minutes left in Saturday’s game against the Knicks. The Lakers were up six points with a chance to make it a three-possession game when Westbrook caught the pass.
His initial shot fake and hesitance were something fans had seen this year, and they knew what may be coming after. Their reaction, though, did not deter Westbrook from hoisting a contested, out-of-rhythm long-range effort that predictably missed.
It was the final field goal attempt for Westbrook on a night he went 1/10 from the field. It was also the final minutes he would play in the contest as, after a collapse in regulation that also saw Westbrook miss a pair of free throws at the line, the Lakers were forced to win in overtime against the Knicks. And they did it without Westbrook.
For the second time this season, head coach Frank Vogel turned away from Westbrook late in the game. The previous time, it had little consequence as the Lakers fell to the Pacers. On Saturday, the purple and gold coming away with the win may have played a role in Westbrook’s response to the benching.
“Yeah, I mean it happens man, you know?” Westbrook said. “Missed some shots that I normally make. But like I said man, I don’t want to keep making it about me. Like, when I play bad you guys ask me a shit ton of questions, and then when I shoot the ball really well, I don’t really hear too many of those questions. So I don’t want to keep making it about me and what I’m doing. Like, we won the game tonight, and that’s the most important part.
“As far as basketball, there’s going to be off nights. Everybody has off nights. I have some. Other people may have some, and that’s part of the game. That’s basketball. But I don’t care about anything as long as we won. Winning is the most important part of this game and that’s the most important thing to me, regardless of if I play well, shoot bad. If I play well and we lose, it doesn’t really matter. We lost the game. But if we win, that’s the most important part to me.”
Last time he was benched, Westbrook left the arena without talking to reporters. Realistically, it was in no one's best interest to do that again on Saturday.
But the underlying problem is Westbrook’s play. For not the first time on Saturday, Vogel felt the team had a better chance to win the game with him on the bench. And while Westbrook may have had an unseasonably poor night shooting the ball, his performances have trended much closer to Saturday’s than the alternative.
One of the differences on Saturday was the second-guessing nature of Westbrook’s play. A player that has always excelled by overwhelming opponents with athleticism and explosiveness, indecisiveness is a fatal flaw for Westbrook and that was the message his teammates and coach shared after the game.
“I just told him to keep going, stop second-guessing himself during the game,” LeBron James said. “There was a couple times where he had good looks and second-guessed himself, and there was a couple times where he had drives and second-guessed himself. He’s an instinctive player. And he should never, with what he’s done in this league, he should never second guess himself. He’s put the work in. He’s put the work in. So I told him to just hit me later. And I don’t need to harp on what we need to say to him. I mean, he’s a big-time player and I have the utmost confidence in his ability. Not only for this team, but for himself as an individual.”
“There’s nothing wrong, with any player, if someone’s not playing well enough and they don’t get to finish the game or close the game out,” Vogel added, “there’s nothing wrong with giving somebody you feel is going to give you a better chance that opportunity. And hopefully the response is that that player plays better. That’s the hope.”
James and Anthony Davis sought out Westbrook this summer and, to varying degrees, his success or failure will be traced back to them. And in fairness to the trio as a whole, they still have had remarkably few minutes, relatively speaking, to figure things out.
LeBron and AD have played 936 possessions together this season. The Lakers are a +10 (net) when the duo have been ON the floor, and Jordan/Howard/Bazemore have been off— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) February 6, 2022
For context, this is how many possessions the duo played together the last two seasons:
Westbrook, perhaps more so than any player on the roster this season, has had his role change repeatedly simply by virtue of being available. While so many of the parts have moved around him, Westbrook is the only Laker to play in every game this season.
Whether the team has played traditionally with a center in the frontcourt, small ball with no center, without James or without Davis, Westbrook has been the one constant that has been forced into all sorts of roles. It isn’t an excuse for his performance on Saturday or his general level of play this season, but it is an explanation of sorts.
The Lakers will still be at their best with Westbrook something much closer to his best. They still have time to find Westbrook’s best and are going to do their best to do so.
“Just staying in his ear,” Davis said of his advice to Westbrook. “It can be frustrating. The fans obviously want to see him play better, but one thing you can’t do is put too much pressure on yourself. You’ve got to go out there and play freely, there were some shots tonight that he usually takes in rhythm and he kind of passed up or hesitated, and me and LB were telling him ‘we don’t care if you miss every one. Just play. Shoot your rhythm shots, don’t hesitate.’ And obviously that’s easier said than done just because when you’re in it, you don’t want to be missing shots. I mean, he doesn’t try to miss. And a lot of shots he takes are shots he can make.
“But he’s got to stay out of his own head. He’s just got to continue to play and do the little things. When I was going through the whole little thing where I wasn’t playing well (earlier this year), I tried to always do the little things for our team. The intangibles. And that kind of gets you going. Gets you in a rhythm. That’s what he has to do. He’s got two days to kind of just get away, and try to lock back in for Milwaukee. But as leaders of the team, me and Bron just try to continue to talk to him and make sure that he’s not in his own head and putting a lot of pressure on himself.”
Saturday’s benching wasn’t a first for Westbrook this season. His improved response to it could be a matter of that past experience. Or a matter of the result of the game. And it’s impossible to tell — with this Lakers team in particular — if it’ll be any sort of turning point or landmark moment on the season.
But if the Lakers are going to build on the win and toward the playoffs, the moment and the response will have to matter moving forward.