LOS ANGELES — Every game is a data point.
Entering Sunday’s matinee against the Brooklyn Nets, the LA Clippers had won only one game when Russell Westbrook played at least 30 minutes. It was on Halloween against the Orlando Magic, the day after the news broke that the Clippers traded for James Harden. The following night, in a road loss against the Los Angeles Lakers, Westbrook had his only 20-point game of the season (24 points on 42.9 percent shooting from the field).
In late November, Westbrook responded to a poor performance against the New Orleans Pelicans by emphasizing energy for himself and new starter Terance Mann. It resulted in a bounce-back performance against the Dallas Mavericks on zero days’ rest.
When the Clippers had a matinee game to begin December against the Golden State Warriors, they trailed by 22 points in the second half. Westbrook did not play a large role in the comeback win, but he did have a key moment, grabbing the defensive rebound in a lineup without a true center that led to Paul George’s game-winning 3-pointer.
Last Sunday on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Clippers trailed by 17 points with 5:38 left to play before a 20-6 Clippers run made it a one-possession game with just under a minute left in the fourth quarter. Although the Timberwolves held on to win with the Clippers missing center Ivica Zubac, there were some lessons LA took from a lineup that featured Harden, George, Westbrook, Norman Powell and Kawhi Leonard — with Westbrook as the primary defender on Minnesota center Rudy Gobert.
“Got some stops, playing faster,” Westbrook said of the small lineup in Minnesota that almost helped the Clippers steal a game from the Timberwolves. “Made some open shots, we missed a lot of open ones early. A little too late. But I’m not mad about how we played. It’s the shots we’ve been making all year long, and we still had a chance to win it.”
A 20-6 run is in the “something to build on” category. All of the other previous data points for the Clippers and Westbrook are items the team could file away against the Brooklyn Nets, a team the Clippers were shut down by two months ago on the East Coast.
Sunday, the Clippers overcame an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit by ending the game on a 39-10 run that included 22 unanswered points in the final 5:33 to win 125-114. It was arguably Westbrook’s best game of the season. He finished with 23 points in 31:11 off the bench while making 10-of-16 field goals and adding nine rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block.
It was the most points Westbrook scored this season and the most field goals he made in a game since the 2023 postseason. The rebounds were a January high for Westbrook, and the minutes were the most he has played off of the bench all season. The Clippers outscored the Nets by 22 points in Westbrook’s minutes, his best plus-minus since Oct. 29.
Westbrook did it while serving as the center in a lineup that featured Harden, Powell, George and Leonard again. So let’s go right to the 22-0 run to show how Westbrook, the last player to win MVP while starting at point guard, played up several positions:
The after-timeout play
The Nets started the game on a 16-0 run, and though the Clippers were able to erase that deficit in the first quarter thanks to Mann’s energy, the Nets did not trail before building their largest lead of the game, 104-86, with 10:54 left in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers chipped away at the lead with a lineup featuring Harden, Powell and Westbrook. Amir Coffey gave way to George with 10 minutes to play, and backup center Daniel Theis’ dunk cut the Nets lead to 108-101 with 7:14 left before Leonard replaced Theis about a minute later. With 6:27 left, the Clippers tried the small lineup of Harden, Powell, George, Leonard and Westbrook again. Before the fourth quarter, all lineups without either Theis or starting center Mason Plumlee on the floor were outscored by two points, so it wasn’t exactly a boon right away.
After Mikal Bridges stole a Harden interior pass and finished a fast break layup, the Clippers found themselves down double digits again, 114-103 with 5:33 left. Coach Tyronn Lue called timeout, and the play coming out of that timeout was a pindown for George, who missed four of his first five 3s but has been lethal off the ball this season on catch-and-shoot opportunities. And who was the player setting the down screen for George? Westbrook, who was being guarded by Nets center Nic Claxton. This play got the 22-0 run started:
Know your personnel
Westbrook’s assignment was Claxton, who entered Sunday’s game with one made 3-pointer this season. It was Claxton’s only attempt of the season — until the fourth quarter against the Clippers.
While Bridges drove on George, Westbrook rotated off Claxton to be in the paint. Normally, you would not come off the strongside corner. But if the shooter is Claxton, well …
I’d show you a clip of the 6-foot-11 Claxton posting up the 6-4 Westbrook. But the Nets did not have a single post-up Sunday, per Synergy. That is in line with their offense this season. The only team to post up fewer times per game than the Nets are the Cleveland Cavaliers. That makes it easy to assign Westbrook — a physical guard who loves to dominate smaller opponents with his notorious post-up game — on an off-ball center like Claxton and win the matchup.
Asked Russell Westbrook about guarding the center down the stretch today, recalling Media Day where Russ said that he likes to punish smaller guards 🚼
Here’s what Russ had to say about understanding his assignment tonight (and being one of the best to ever do it) pic.twitter.com/Z2K4yl0aYN
— Law Murray 🧽 (@LawMurrayTheNU) January 22, 2024
Push the pace
An advantage to Westbrook playing center is that he is a plus rebounder who is capable of running the fast break and is a willing passer. All of those factors were at work with just under four minutes to play.
Cameron Johnson got both feet in the paint, but with the shot clock winding down, he missed a tough shot over Harden. If the ball hit the rim, Claxton may have had a great chance at an offensive rebound with George on his back. But Westbrook secured the air ball and started a fast break instead, racing past Claxton while Johnson was peeling himself off of the court.
The Nets had enough players back to defend Westbrook’s encroachment. But while Spencer Dinwiddie awaited Westbrook, Bridges floated into the paint and off of Powell, who was running to the corner. Westbrook continued to draw Bridges inside before leaving his feet and passing to a waiting Powell. Next thing you know, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn is burning a timeout due to the Clippers scoring 10 unanswered points.
When defenses double the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll, it’s a blitz. When defenses double a player on the perimeter without a ball screen, it’s a fire. Both situations require a player to be ready to receive the pass to beat the double-team and make the right decision, whether it is shooting, driving or passing.
The Nets were pretty much cooked with about 30 seconds left to play and the Clippers leading by eight points. Claxton and Johnson fired on George to get the ball out of his hands, and Westbrook was on the wing to receive George’s escape pass. The Nets rotations led Bridges to leave Powell open in the strongside corner to defend Westbrook, while Dinwiddie left Leonard in the weakside corner to rotate over to Powell. Westbrook fired a diagonal dart to Leonard once he saw Dinwiddie running to cover Powell. Leonard scored a 3 over Cam Thomas to cap the 22-0 run.
The primary role of a center defensively is to protect the rim. Down the stretch, with Claxton in the paint and various Nets driving to the rim, it was Westbrook meeting them and getting key stops to preserve the clutch-time shutout.
The final three Nets shot attempts were by Bridges and Thomas. On each drive, Westbrook was in a position to contest the shot, grab the rebound or both. Westbrook was even ready to draw a charge on one Thomas attempt before securing a rebound. It was a standout effort from a player who wants to be on an All-NBA Defensive Team.
“I’ve been emphasizing defensively for me, it’s huge this year,” Westbrook said. “Guarding one through five, no matter what it is. Position, time, score, possession. Being help side. Rebounding, boxing out. All the small things that need to be done. I’ll do it. Whatever it takes to win basketball games. And tonight, my job was to guard the five and do a great job of being in coverage, reading defenses, communicating. And, you know, I did the best of my abilities to be able to close the game out.”
(Photo of Russell Westbrook going to the basket against Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)