Game 1 of the highly anticipated Clippers-Suns first round series lived up to the expectations, as L.A. swiped homecourt advantage with a 115-110 win in Phoenix behind a stunning 38-point performance from Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard dueled with Kevin Durant (27 points) and Devin Booker (26 points), but after the game the talk was about Russell Westbrook’s incredible final minute of play. Game 1 was the full Russell Westbrook Experience, as he started the night hounding Kevin Durant on defense, pestering his former teammate and rival into an uncustomary slow start, missing his first five shots. While doing that, Westbrook was also getting off to his own dreadful shooting night, as he would finish the game 3-of-19 shooting, taking more shots in the game than anyone other than Kawhi Leonard (13-of-24) despite having nothing going with his jumper or at the rim.
In the third quarter, as the Suns took control of the game, pushing their way to a nine-point lead, Westbrook’s defensive intensity waned, his poor shooting continued, and the groans from Clippers fans grew louder and louder on Twitter with every passing moment. When he went out of the game, L.A. made its run to tie the game up going into the fourth, leading to plenty to hope he would remain in his seat on the bench for good.
But Tyronn Lue reinserted Westbrook early in the fourth, and left him in for the remainder of the game, where he was rewarded for his faith in the former MVP with one of the most impactful overall final minutes you’ll see. While it was Kawhi Leonard’s unbelievable shooting (and a couple timely threes from others) that pushed the Clippers into the lead, it was Westbrook who helped seal the deal by providing what is likely his best sequence of the season (and maybe the past few years).
It started with securing a key offensive rebound and then fighting for another (as he had five of his 10 boards in the final frame), causing the ball to go out of bounds off of Deandre Ayton to retain possession for a second time in what became a 50-second long possession for the Clippers.
After Durant denied Leonard the ball on the Clippers’ fourth attempt at a possession, Westbrook drove the ball into the lane and drew a foul on Booker, setting up a pair of clutch free throws that he drilled.
On the ensuing possession for the Suns, Westbrook pulled off one of the best individual defensive plays you will ever see, staying on Booker’s hip on a drive, blocking him, and then somehow managing to double jump and throw the ball off of Booker to give L.A. possession.
That play, effectively, won them the game, as L.A. would get the ball in and Eric Gordon would hit a pair of free throws to push the advantage out to five with seven seconds to go in the game.
Sunday’s game showed the entire spectrum of Russ at this point in his career. There were infuriating decisions, dreadful shooting and finishing, and severe lapses on defense. There was also his infectious energy on the boards and defense during the first and fourth quarters, which is desperately needed on a Clippers team that can all too often grow lackadaisical and see their effort wane. It was one of the best 3-for-19 shooting games you can ever see — and I have to say “one of” because Russ has literally done this before in a playoff win.
With Paul George out, Westbrook has to play big minutes for the Clippers because he’s one of the few players on the team that can initiate offense. Even so, Lue is going to also have to figure out how best to nip those negative stretches in the bud sooner, because they can be absolute killers and not every night will end with this kind of flourish. But in those big moments he is unafraid, which, for all the faults his confidence can bring, is something this Clippers team absolutely needs.
Westbrook is helped tremendously on the offensive end by an assertive Kawhi Leonard, because as we saw in the closing stretches, he will feed the ball to a star teammate when they demand it. He was not looking to score for himself when they were running sets for Leonard, and that might be the most positive takeaway beyond his rebounding from that end on the night.
The problems come when Leonard either isn’t in the game or isn’t looking to take over, because when there is a void of aggression and assertiveness, no one is happier to fill it than Russ. It is the conundrum the Clippers, who don’t have an awful lot of aggressive offensive players beyond Leonard and George (who won’t play in this series), will have to navigate, because Westbrook should never be taking 19 shots on a night where he has nothing going, but they have no one other than Kawhi willing to demand the ball and stop him from himself. And yet, that aggression also helped win them the game, as without his activity on the offensive glass it’s very possible the Suns go down and get a go-ahead bucket.
This is all part of the experience the Clippers signed up for in February. For years, there were cries on NBA Twitter to #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook when he was on the Thunder playing with Durant, but at this point there is nothing that can be done to stop Westbrook from being Westbrook. He is who he is, for better and worse, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to harness the good and mitigate the bad.
Who knows how those scales will tilt going forward in this series, but for at least a night they were in favor of Russ and the Clippers. After a very long couple of years in L.A. with the Lakers, where that was very rarely the case, it was pretty fun to see.