White Airpods in his ears, his gaze riveted on the Sacramento highlights that aired on locker room TV, Russell Westbrook nodding Friday night at a locker a few feet down the hallway of the Crypto.com Arena from his old one.
Surrounded by new offenses and new digs, and new teammates, the former Lakers and new Clipper braced themselves for their first opportunity to show a new side: one in which the former MVP could suppress his most destructive traits, highlight his most useful qualities. while boosting the Clippers’ potential.
What followed was the second-highest scoring game in NBA history, a 176-175 scoring and pace fever dream featuring one incredible Kings victory, two overtimes, a defense that wouldn’t look out of place in Sunday’s All-Star Game, Kawai. With Leonard’s entire offensive arsenal en route to a season-high 44 points and Westbrook’s full experience, his imprint throughout his fifth-team debut in five seasons has ranged from positive to mysterious.
It was not a minor stage for the debut of a new player in Westbrook. The Kings (34-25) remain third in the West, one place ahead of the Clippers (33-29), but are now 2.5 games apart. Sacramento has a 2-1 lead of the season and their last game will be next week.
Westbrook crashed into the alley with his drives, fouling the first paint run. Equally important was what he carved out — jump shots with pull-ups, which rarely fell during his season and a half in purple and gold. He tried screening, so often a rarity in his game, even if it resulted in a couple of false calls from the defense, and pushed the ball up the court when he was given a bit of space. Westbrook ended a dizzying first half with a left-handed shot, and then his crossover shot created enough space to pass to Norman Powell, whose 3-pointer set the Clippers’ season-high points before halftime with 80.
It was only the 10th time in franchise history that a team had scored 80 or more points in a half, and only the second time this season two teams had scored 75 or more in a half. Because defense is optional for both teams, even before the fourth quarter began, Westbrook had already become the first Clipper to score at least 10 passes on his team’s debut since Sam Cassell 18 years ago.
Yet for all the attention on Westbrook and what his addition might mean, he represents just one question the Clippers must answer in order to fulfill their title ambitions. More was revealed on Friday, with 25 turnovers giving the Kings 42 points.
Four games in a row changed the course of the game during a disastrous stretch of the fourth quarter.
Leading 11 with 3:18 left, the Clippers passed the ball four times in a row — Westbrook’s passes, two Georges, and Powell’s offensive foul — then conceded a shot in the fifth to cut their lead to 147. -146 in just 82 seconds. to end
With the Clippers leading 153–150 with only 8.5 seconds left in regulation and coach Tyrone Liu opting not to foul, Westbrook defended a passer Malik Monk and then turned his head to watch De’Aaron Fox dribble the ball long enough to lose to Monk for the far three. – dotted line. That time was enough time for Monk to start the shot to send a game that the Clippers had been leading by 11 points three minutes earlier into overtime as Westbrook struggled to challenge the shot.
In overtime, Westbrook’s corner three-pointer extended the lead to four, and when Paul George missed two free throws, Nicolas Batum, who recovered the ball, extended the lead to six with three minutes remaining.
Once again, the Clippers failed. The improvement in their attacking play late in the game was one of the reasons the team were looking to gain Westbrook’s experience with the ball, but possession of the isolation saw George concede a bouncing ball and Leonard a miss, and a second extra period was needed. .
Westbrook received a standing ovation after fouling in the second overtime with 17 points, 14 assists, five rebounds and seven assists – his 15th game this season with at least five losses.
For the Clippers’ big bet on Westbrook to pay off, he needs him to be as ready as possible to play the role of helper rather than savior, picking up the pace and hitting the paint behind teammates like Leonard, who has returned from the game. . break for the league All-Star Game, scoring 21 points in the third quarter.
Leonard’s hitting streak included six 3-pointers, the last of which when Leonard dribbled over one defenseman, Monk, and shot a 3-pointer when the other, Trey Liles, vainly rushed for help. As double teams again followed in the next two possessions, Leonard’s passes led to a pull-up for Marcus Morris Sr. and then Nicolas Batum hit a three-pointer from an open corner, and the attack was as effective as it had been all season.
During what Clippers management described as honest, candid conversations with Westbrook ahead of his Utah buyout earlier this month, the team never promised Westbrook a starting role, but his relationship with Liu and the coach’s unwavering trust in Westbrook, although the Lakers were happy to walk away from him after 130 games, he made his debut as a starter, likely since formally signing on Wednesday afternoon for the remainder of the season.
This trust was evident in Liu’s decision to leave Westbrook, who had only two practices and one shootout with new teammates, on the court until he fouled at 1:49 to play in double overtime.
But there was another factor: if the Clippers were going to replace starting quarterback Terence Mann with Westbrook, they should have done it as early as possible, rather than postponing the opportunity, at a time when time is most valuable with only 20 games left.
“We don’t have much time to really experiment,” Lou said, “because we still have to win games.”
In many ways on Friday they lost their chance to win the decider.