He starts by smiling. The kind of smile that when you see it, you didn’t realize how much you missed it. Genuine, unselfconscious, a smile that dawns on him, spreading wider with reality of the moment. He shakes his head a little.
“Effort, heart, the will to win, I’ve been here before,” Russell Westbrook says, answering the question of how he’s able to make plays like that last one where, guarding Devin Booker snugger than a shadow in the 4th, Westbrook leapt to meet the ball as it left Booker’s hand, blocking the shot. Half a second later, already having done the best thing for his team, he did an even better thing. Westbrook dove for the ball as it careened out of bounds, where he swatted it, tipping it back in to bounce decisively off Booker’s legs, securing the Clippers the next possession and Game 1 in their first round series against the Phoenix Suns.
When Westbrook says he’s been here before he means in the kind of late-game seconds slowed to crawling dread or sped up to ruthless quicksilver that can make or break a team’s chances. This is his 12th postseason, the first was in 2009-2010 alongside Kevin Durant in OKC. Though no one should have forgotten, it feels fitting to have memory jogged of that year’s Westbrook, at the end of his second NBA season with explosive vertical hang time to spare and playing alongside a lankier Durant, by this current version, an unyielding magnet that yanked lofty hopes away from Booker while Durant watched.
When asked in his postgame how he approached the assignment of guarding Durant, Westbrook said the plan was, “Make sure he sees you, make sure he knows that you’re there.” It’s fair to say that by the end of the game Durant was craving a change of scenery.
What made Westbrook’s Game 1 renaissance so wonderful, so much like those rare, rewarding times when you know you’re the last person someone wants to see and the crowd parts just so wherever you are, so that their line of sight bullseyes directly at you, is that Westbrook won the game by doing the exact thing he’s been so maligned for in the last two seasons. In Game 1 of the series, Westbrook didn’t just torch the Suns with his defense, but incinerated them with a little bit of everything.
Westbrook recorded 10 rebounds, split exactly down the middle with five apiece for offensive and defensive, with three blocks, eight assists and two steals. Of the starters, Westbrook was the only one to average a positive (+8) plus/minus rating for the game. Sure, he was 3-for-19 shooting (a point someone brought up in his postgame was an identical stat to the last playoff game he won with the Wizards in 2021, and Westbrook chuckled at, saying, “We won both games. So shit, if it works”), but those missed attempts only seemed to be generative of more unflagging momentum.
The critiques of Westbrook’s penchant for letting it fly from wherever, whenever, never account for what an underlying reason for the rapid-fire releases might be. Beyond a deeply ingrained habit, Westbrook’s free-flowing shooting operates like a conduit. He doesn’t shoot and hang around to watch what happens, he just gets back on the move — tearing around the floor to gather momentum back up and redistribute it somewhere else.
“You wait for the game,” Westbrook noted in his postgame, “sometimes the game goes by you.”
Alongside Kawhi Leonard (38 points on 13-for-24), Westbrook has the offensive padding he’s always worked best alongside (think Durant in OKC, shades of James Harden in Houston, Bradley Beal with the Wizards). Better still, with Leonard and how automatic he is, the volatility of shooting slumps that can wreak havoc on a team’s psyche and energy in the higher highs and lower lows of a playoff game are neutralized. The Clippers still have two certified superstars on the court, but one’s literally never in his head about it while it’s impossible for the other to be boxed into one head, since he’s perpetually, at minimum, three people at once while on the floor.
Watching him work Phoenix to the point where they looked not lost, but inoperative, every iteration of Westbrook was on display.
One Westbrook ducked down the wing, while another would take a half second glance over to see Mason Plumlee primed for the lob yet another Westbrook tossed, tidy, right to him for the slam. There was the Westbrook collecting bounce passes from Leonard in the paint, hopping up vertically from parked stationary under the basket to neatly pop the ball in. There was the Westbrook who was already going downhill and still found a faster gear to shift into and breeze by Durant for a layup, another Westbrook backed down Landry Shamet just to flip a pass over his head to Plumlee for a backwards basket and a foul. Teleporting Westbrook, flying in from behind Deandre Ayton for a shot deflection; Taunting Westbrook, nabbing an offensive rebound just to run half the roster in a circle and leave Leonard with enough space for an open three as soon as he made the pass, pushing the Clippers up 104 on Phoenix’s 99.
“Any time I’m in a position people believe in me, not as a basketball player, but me as a person. I feel like it's my duty to be able to bring everything I have regardless of what happens and lay it out on the line,” Westbrook told reporters after the game when asked how he felt about Paul George playing a role in getting him to the Clippers, and now playing without, but also for George.
Westbrook, I hope everyone realized as Booker rushed in to try and deliver the win just to find it served right back to him, contains multitudes. That he seems to be within a system now that truly wants all facets of him — the vintage explosive-ism, the volume shooting, the veteran’s coy patience — is a joy and relief that’s long overdue to him.