When the Lakers executed their blockbuster trade for Russell Westbrook, one goal was for Westbrook, alongside Anthony Davis, to prop up the LeBron James-less minutes, which had been a problem for the Lakers over the past two seasons.
That was exactly what Westbrook did on Tuesday, with James sitting court side in street clothes nursing a sore ankle. Westbrook finished with 33 points (15-of-27 shooting, 1-of-4 3-point shooting), 10 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and three turnovers in 40 minutes.
“That’s why we felt great about this move,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Last year, we lost Bron and AD for a long stretch and we didn’t have enough to sustain throughout the regular season and to win in the playoffs. And to get a guy like Russ, if one of those guys is down, we have another guy that can put up a monster night like we saw tonight. Paying early dividends in acquiring Russell.”
This was the most Westbrook had looked like himself in Los Angeles.
Seventeen of Westbrook’s 27 shots came in the paint. The Lakers found more effective ways to use him with the starting group (minus James, of course).
Westbrook attributed his success to slowing down, not speeding up, without James.
“Just slowing down a little bit,” Westbrook said. “Last, first three games, rushing around the basket, which I don’t really need to. Get there taking my time and then focusing on making the layup.”
Of course, Westbrook being Westbrook, there were some possessions that left you scratching your head. The early in the shot clock pull-ups, forced passes, and the over aggressive defense. But when few and far between, you can live with this version of Westbrook.
In a micro sense, this was probably Westbrook’s breakout game. His progression hasn’t been linear with the Lakers, but he looks much better than he did against the Warriors a week ago. If there was ever any doubt about if Westbrook could still produce like a superstar, and help the Lakers win, that was put to rest Tuesday. Westbrook’s playmaking notably helped unlock a monster performance from Davis, who had 35 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks, as their two-man chemistry continues to impress.
In a macro sense, though, it must be noted that this performance came without James. Westbrook had the ball in his hands a lot more — he posted a season-high 31.5 usage percentage and eclipsed his season-high in shot attempts by 12 field goals. This was more an encapsulation of what Westbrook is capable of when he’s handed the keys to the offense — he can carry a team to the victory, especially against lesser opponents, even if it isn’t necessarily pretty.
But how does he manage this production when James returns? Can he? The fit has remained clunky — at best.
These will be crossroads that the Lakers will come across very soon, but for now it is nothing but good vibes.
The other bright spot from last nights win in San Antonio was Malik Monk.
Monk stepped up as the third cog in the offense, scoring 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting and adding three assists.
“I mean, shit, Malik, plus-31,” Davis said. “Ridiculous. He came in, started and played well. Big-time 3s. He played great defensively.”
Monk’s 3-point shooting is impressive and important for an offense that needs floor-spacing around its stars. But he’s also flashed some off-the-dribble juice, with an ability to leverage the threat of his shot into a dribble-drive attack.
Monk’s jaw-dropping 31-foot 3-pointer with 58.6 seconds remaining in regulation nearly won the Lakers the game.
“I got unlimited range,” said Monk, who’s always smiling, before busting into a laugh.
Not to be forgotten, rookie Austin Reaves, who has earned praise after three consecutive games, continues to stand out. The undrafted free agent had 10 points in a career-high 30 minutes.
The Lakers head to OKC on the second of back to backs to take on the Thunder. They will be without LeBron James and potentially Anthony Davis. If both are out expect the Brodie Show maxed out.