Russell Westbrook was relieved. He had to be … right? Westbrook’s 13-point, 13-assist effort Sunday was hardly a master class in point guard play, not when it took 15 shots to get those 13 points and not when the 13 assists were paired with nine turnovers. But the Lakers won, edging the Grizzlies to avoid an 0–3 start—and the drumbeat from the doomsayers from getting any louder.
A week into the NBA season and Los Angeles is, to paraphrase Dennis Green, what we thought they were. The 0–7 preseason foreshadowed early-season struggles, and they have been there. The defense, first in the NBA last season, has plummeted to 25th. Injuries to Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker have forced Frank Vogel to dig deep into his bench. On Sunday, Austin Reaves, an undrafted two-way contract player signed in August, was one of the first ones off it. L.A. ultimately beat back Memphis but needed a throwback performance from Carmelo Anthony (28 points) to do it.
And then there is Westbrook, the lightning rod, the player who will routinely absorb the brunt of the criticism for Lakers losses, even when he isn’t responsible for them. Westbrook hasn’t been good. His scoring average through three games (12 points) is a career low. His turnover numbers (5.7) are a career high. He has attempted 11 three-pointers so far this season. He has made one.
It’s been bad.
The question is—will it get better?
Westbrook thinks so. After 13 seasons, Westbrook is accustomed to criticism. He has faced it everywhere. In Oklahoma City, where he was never supposed to become an All-NBA point guard, an MVP. In Houston, where he lasted only one season with his ex-Thunder teammate, James Harden. In Washington, where he couldn’t make it work with Bradley Beal. Perhaps the results will be the same in Los Angeles. But Westbrook insists three games isn’t the sample size needed to determine that.
“It’s all a process,” Westbrook said. “Everyone wants, as much as we do, we want to win every game, everybody thinks we should win every game, blah, blah, blah. We’ll figure it out.”
“I’m O.K. with adversity. I never panic. Especially at the start of a season. There’s really no need to. A season is too long. It’s good to get off to a good start, to feel good about yourself. Especially me personally, I like to make sure that … as the season goes on I’m constantly getting better and better.”
Westbrook is trying. His shooting percentage (34.9%) is low, but he’s also attempting the fewest shots (14.3) since his second season. He picked up a pair of assists in back-to-back possessions early in the first quarter against the Grizzlies. He found DeAndre Jordan three times in the first six minutes for dunks. His shot selection, while far from perfect, has improved.
Finding ways to maximize Westbrook’s skills down the stretch has been challenging, but the Lakers are tinkering there, too. Late in the game against Memphis, L.A. sent Westbrook sprinting high to set a screen for LeBron James. He set it, slipped, caught a pass from James and quickly dumped it off to Anthony Davis for a dunk. The Lakers ran the same play the next two possessions. They didn’t score on either, but says Vogel, “It’s definitely a situation we like.”
“We’re all figuring each other out,” said Westbrook. “Guys are figuring out how to run with me and play a little faster. I’m figuring out other things, moving off the ball and doing other things. That’s a process. It’s not going to happen in the first week of the season. We all understand that; at least I do. I’m O.K. with the struggle and figuring it out and making sure that we are putting ourselves in position to do the right things so that ultimately at the end of the year we can be playing our best basketball.”
The Lakers have several issues to iron out. But it’s not overstating it to say that solving the Rubik’s cube that is Westbrook tops all of them. An efficient Westbrook is downright dangerous, capable of kick-starting an anemic transition offense, easing the pressure on James and powering what could be an elite second unit. An inefficient Westbrook is a liability, on both ends of the floor.
It’s too early to make any sweeping judgments on the Lakers.
The play of Westbrook, though, will eventually be the reason for them.
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