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MINNEAPOLIS — Russell Westbrook came off the bench in a regular-season game for the first time since his rookie year in the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 111-102 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves and impressed his team by taking to the role.
“He was great,” said LeBron James, who said Westbrook’s energy “catapulted” L.A.’s overall effort. “He was great all game.”
Westbrook played 33 minutes, more than he had in any of the three games he started this season, and finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists. However, he shot 6-for-17 overall and 5-for-10 from the free throw line and was responsible for five of the Lakers’ 22 team turnovers.
While it wasn’t a perfect night by any means, it was an encouraging look at a fit that new coach Darvin Ham discussed with Westbrook several times over the summer before going to it in the second week of the season.
“From Day 1, I mentioned I’m the guy that’s willing to do whatever for the team,” Westbrook said. “I’ll sacrifice whatever it is that needs to be sacrificed — parts of my game that I’ve done for years to accommodate whatever it is that the coach needs me to do, and I’ll continue to do that.”
That sacrifice included being the primary defender on Minnesota’s 7-1 center Rudy Gobert in the closing lineup, with Ham electing to play small down the stretch with big men Anthony Davis (lower back tightness) and Thomas Bryant (thumb surgery) unavailable.
“Russ, my hat’s off to him once again,” Ham said. “Came off and showed the type of impact he can have in that reserve role and shoring up our bench — not just coming in and trying to maintain anything but coming in and taking it up a notch. So he was great in that role tonight. And I look forward to seeing him in it more once we start getting healthy bodies back.”
Westbrook said there were some adjustments he had to make to his routine to stay ready. He normally sprints from one side of the court to the other just before tipoff, for instance, to get his heart rate up. On Friday, he rode an exercise bike in the tunnel before coming in the game midway through the first quarter.
But his response Friday was different from the one he gave after the preseason finale, when he came off the bench and lasted only five minutes before exiting with hamstring soreness, later questioning if Ham’s decision to bring him in as a reserve could have caused the injury.
This time around, there was acceptance from Westbrook.
“I’m actually not mad with how we played tonight,” he said. “Our energy was in the right direction, which I’m happy about. And I think it’s important obviously to get AD back and get guys healthy, getting us — get things going. But until then, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We got to find a way to compete and get a win.”
Indeed, the Target Center crowd serenaded the Lakers with an “Oh and five! Oh and five!” chant in the game’s final minute.
And Davis missed a game just five games into the season, after declaring during training camp his goal to play in all 82 games on the schedule.
But there was still patience and optimism being expressed by some of the Lakers’ key stakeholders.
“He has to do what’s best for his body,” James said of Davis. “He has to do what’s best for his body and his mind. If his mind is gone, then everything else will fall to the wayside. So he has to trust himself. Yes, he wants to play every game. Yes, he wants to be out there for our team. But he’s had a lot of bumps and bruises over the last few years, so he has to trust himself, trust his staff and not put his body in harm’s way.”
And Westbrook said the early-season injuries aren’t causing him to fret that it could all go sideways like last year when he, James and Davis were limited to just 21 games together.
“To be honest, no,” Westbrook said. “Like I said, I feel good about today. AD is taking care of his body, which is the most important. Make sure his mind is in the right place, because I think that’s the most important part of any injury. When he comes back, we’ll be ready to go, and hopefully that’s sooner rather than later.”