Two games into Russell Westbrook’s role change, the Clippers starting point guard-turned-reserve said although he was “actually not sure” if his job description has changed, his intent when he is on the court has not.
“Just going out and doing whatever’s best for our team to be able to win games,” Westbrook said after the Clippers’ 124-99 win over San Antonio to improve to 5-7. “And that’s it.”
In his debut off the bench Friday, Westbrook played 17 minutes, his fewest since January, in a win that stopped the Clippers’ six-game losing streak since acquiring James Harden from Philadelphia. In Monday’s win, Westbrook played 25 minutes, and the Clippers won his minutes by seven points, as he scored 10 points with six assists, three steals and zero turnovers.
Asked about his acclimation to coming off the bench — which he’d experienced for the first time last season, 15 years into his career, while with the Lakers — and also about the most difficult part about the transition, Westbrook replied with similar answers in which he reiterated that his job was to “go out and compete.”
In the two victories since the new starting lineup and bench rotation was set — a change that has also, for the time being, left former reserve guard Bones Hyland without a clear opportunity for playing time — the Clippers have found success with both. The new starters, with Terance Mann replacing Westbrook, have outscored opponents by 38 points in 30 minutes together. The primary bench lineup of Westbrook, new center Daniel Theis, forward P.J. Tucker, guard Norm Powell and starter Paul George is plus-15 in 17 minutes.
Coach Tyronn Lue said he had communicated with Westbrook that he wanted the reserves to play with more pace with him as their point guard, and for Westbrook to look to play out of the post.
“It’s an adjustment period for him,” Lue said. “Being a starter with PG and Kawhi, it’s a little different, but he’s come along great, and it’s good.”
Lue added that Westbrook is “the guy who needs the ball in his hands to create and make plays and in that second unit it’s been good for us.”
Westbrook was inserted into the Clippers’ starting lineup as soon as the former NBA most valuable player signed with the team last February in large part because the coaching staff instantly wanted to tap into his frenetic pace and unquestioned intensity to pull their starting lineup out of doldrums.
As soon as this season began in October, an offense was installed that played to Westbrook’s strengths of pace and speed.
But 11 games into the season, with his responsibilities and Harden’s overlapping, sometimes slowing how quickly the team could get its offense under way, Westbrook’s role changed as Harden assumed the role of primary ball handler.
Lue has structured his substitution pattern as such to ensure George checks out early enough in the first quarter to return in time to pair with Westbrook. The two have a comfort playing together since they were teammates in Oklahoma City. They have shared the court 29 minutes since the lineup change last week.
“Just puts us in a rhythm,” Westbrook said, “simple as that.”
And although the change was made to separate Harden’s minutes from Westbrook‘s as much as possible, they still play together in spurts — 15 minutes total.
Asked whether he’d had any conversations with the team’s other stars in Harden, Leonard and George about what each could do to help make the new-look roster’s fit work, Westbrook said “there’s no conversation, just go out and do whatever is best for the team and that’s it.”
“I think it’s gonna take time,” said Kawhi Leonard, who played 28 minutes, scoring 21 points. “Everybody’s in a new role. Not just me, the guys that were playing are not playing now. And then the guys that were playing a lot of minutes are playing less minutes so I think he’s getting it.
“But we still need time and consistency and just playing with one another.”