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Even in defeat, Russell Westbrook impresses in first game off the bench since rookie season

For the first time since his rookie season in 2008, Russell Westbrook participated in a regular-season NBA game that he did not start on Friday as his Los Angeles Lakers were defeated by the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-102. What was the first thing he did when he entered the game with roughly seven minutes remaining in the first quarter? He attacked the basket.

At roughly the same point in the third quarter, Westbrook entered again, and once again, on his first offensive possession, he went right at the rim.

He missed the first layup. He missed 11 shots in total on Friday. But for perhaps the first time all season, Russell Westbrook looked like Russell Westbrook. Of the 17 total shots he attempted, only four came outside of the paint. It turns out, inserting one of the most athletic players in basketball into a game fresh once everyone else has expended a bit of energy can make his life a lot easier. Westbrook finished the game with 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists. 

Perhaps more importantly, the Lakers and Timberwolves tied the minutes Westbrook played. That might not seem impressive, but remember, the Lakers lost Westbrook’s minutes in each of his first three games this season. He looked better off the bench, and the team played better with him on the floor as a result. His head coach was quite impressed.

“My hat’s off to him once again,” Darvin Ham said after the game. “Came off [the bench] and shows the type of impact he can have in that reserve role and shoring up our bench and not just coming in and trying to maintain anything but coming in and taking it up a notch. He was great in that role tonight and I look forward to seeing him in it more once we start getting healthy body backs.”

LeBron James echoed the sentiment. “He was great,” James said. “Definitely catapulted us. He was great all game.” Praise from James is significant for Westbrook, as their fit together was one of the drivers behind the decision to move Westbrook to the bench. Westbrook’s poor jump-shooting made it harder for James to attack the rim and make plays for others. On Friday, James maintained a balance between sharing the floor with Westbrook and capitalizing on the minutes they were separated. He wound up with 28 points as a result.

Westbrook is expected to remain on the bench even after Anthony Davis returns, and with the reports indicating that the Lakers do not plan to reconsider the trade market until around Thanksgiving, their goal as a team right now is to figure out how to get any value out of Westbrook whatsoever. More minutes as the team’s lone ball-handler and fresher legs against tired opponents appeared to be a good place to start on Friday.

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