For the second time this season, Russell Westbrook was benched down the stretch of a close game for the Los Angeles Lakers. After an R.J. Barrett triple sent the Lakers and New York Knicks to overtime on Saturday, Westbrook’s night was finished with head coach Frank Vogel choosing to play third-year pro Talen Horton-Tucker over the veteran star.
The Lakers managed to pull through and win the game, reversing an awful first quarter after Vogel changed his starting lineup once again. But despite the big comeback win, Westbrook again became the story for his struggles. The star guard finished the game with just five points and six assists in 29 minutes. He made just one of 10 field goal attempts, missed a pair of clutch free throws and turned the ball over four times. In arguably his worst showing of the season, Westbrook was booked by the home crowd after a wild miss and had fans practically begging him not to shoot an open 3-pointer late in the contest.
The crowd screaming at Russ to not shoot the ball 😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/FRz6uYhgCT
— Mink Flow (@currypistonn) February 6, 2022
Vogel explained his decision to bench the star that the Lakers acquired over the offseason by saying that he knew LeBron James would have the ball in his hands on overtime and opted to go with a player (Horton-Tucker) who would give the Lakers more off the ball and on the defensive end. The head coach called it a “tough decision in the spirit of winning the game.”
Despite being benched, Westbrook did speak to the media after the game and his answers all had the same theme: he did not want to be the story after a Lakers win.
“I don’t want to keep making it about me and what I’m doing,” the former MVP said. “We won the game tonight, and that’s the most important part. As far as basketball, there’s going to be off nights. Everybody has off nights […] But I don’t care about anything as long as we won.”
While that’s an admirable stance for Westbrook to take, it’s also not entirely what he or the Lakers need. In order for the Lakers to compete for a championship as was expected prior to the season, Westbrook needs to be on the court and to perform. But it has been quite some time since there has been a confident version of Westbrook on the court for the Lakers. Both Anthony Davis and LeBron James mentioned that concept after the game.
“What he’s done in the league, he should never second-guess himself,” LeBron said before reiterating that he has the “utmost confidence” in Westbrook to turn things around.
Davis had a longer answer about his star teammate, telling the media that he and LeBron try to stay in his ears to “make sure that he’s not in his own head and putting a lot of pressure on himself.”
AD's full quote on his and LeBron's message to Russ in the wake of his struggles and the boos tonight: pic.twitter.com/1OyHDO8orJ
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) February 6, 2022
There have been flashes of that sort of brilliance from Westbrook at times this season. In those instances, you can see the guard’s fingerprints on everything the Lakers do and he seems unstoppable. But those moments have been few and far between. As the Lakers attempt to climb up the standings and put themselves in the playoff picture, the team simply cannot afford to lose games trying to force Westbrook into a those situations.
Vogel – reportedly with the blessing of the front office – has set the precedent that he will bench Westbrook to close games if he is not performing. Now it’s up to Russ to make that a tougher decision for his coach.