EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Russell Westbrook’s defense thrusts Clippers ahead of Suns in Game 1
Apr 16, 2023, 10:25 PM | Updated: Apr 17, 2023, 1:25 am
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — Continuity is the buzzword for this first-round playoff series.
The Phoenix Suns haven’t had much of it with Kevin Durant entering the night with eight games played for Phoenix.
But the Los Angeles Clippers lost one of their top two players, Paul George, late in the year and signed a bought-out Russell Westbrook to step in as a new offensive initiator, giving them a 21-game trial run.
For a player like Westbrook with such a rocky recent history of fitting in and playing at the position at the controls of an offense, it was a risky proposition. So of course it was the two-time NBA scoring champion’s defense that turned the Western Conference’s 4-5 matchup on its head out of the gates.
Westbrook went 3-for-19 from the field to score just nine points as the Suns placed Durant, his old Oklahoma City teammate, on him defensively, baiting him into early jumpers.
Clippers head coach Ty Lue needed to get Westbrook’s frustrations of missed shots out of his head sometime in the first half.
“Your scoring is not that important, like, don’t get frustrated with missing shots,” Lue told Westbrook.
“He was mad about missing shots. And I said, ‘listen, your shot’s not important, take good shots, take the right shots. But what you bring our team is way more valuable.'”
Among the resulting highlights:
— A swat of Durant from behind while recovering off a pick-and-roll
— A block of a driving Devin Booker with 10 seconds left in the game and Phoenix trailing by three to seal it
— A series of offensive rebounds in the final three minutes
“I think I’m one of those guys: I can do everything each and every night,” Westbrook said. “Like, I’ve always told you guys whatever is needed of me to win the game, I’ll do it. I’m just grateful.”
Westbrook added eight assists, 10 rebounds, two steals and three blocks.
Perhaps the biggest twist in this: Los Angeles assigned Westbrook to Durant going the other way, sacrificing size to allow Westbrook to fly off screens with the sole purpose of making Durant wonder whether the still-quite-athletic point guard would be bothering his midrange pull-ups.
Durant missed his first five shots and finished with 27 points to lead Phoenix. His 11 assists were the result of the Clippers forcing the ball out of his hands early and late.
Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles’ leading scorer with 38 points, took the Durant assignment down the stretch, and the Suns star only took one shot attempt in the final six minutes of the game.
Westbrook’s masterful work on Durant set that up, though. The Clippers point guard laughed when asked about defending his old teammate, saying he only hoped to make Durant feel his presence.
“He did a great job, pursuing the basketball, not melting on screens, continuing to keep coming,” Lue added. “I’ve never seen a guy block KD’s shot but a point guard blocking KD’s shot tells you how hard he’s playing and how locked in he is.”
Even when the Suns went on a 15-0 run in the third quarter to flip a six-point deficit into a nine-point lead, the Clippers stuck with Westbrook through four missed shots in that run. He was playing too damn well defensively.
He crashed the glass, too, helping a four-shot-attempt possession burn nearly a minute from the clock down to 17 seconds left in the game.
The key from the words of the still-very-confident point guard?
“Understanding time, score, possession and at this position, humbly speaking, nobody is a better rebounder than me.”