June 16, 2024

When Russell Westbrook was picked up by the Clippers in February, his temperament changed.

He was calmer. He was more philosophical.

When Westbrook opened his second season with the team on Wednesday night, he was transformed as a player.

He was under control. He was unselfish.

In a 123-111 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers at Crypto.com Arena, Westbrook looked like the player the Clippers were missing last season.

The former Lakers reject looked like a true point guard.

His late-career revival with the Clippers now has a chance to be more than a feel-good story. If he can replicate his season-opening performance on a regular basis over the next six months, it could be a championship story, regardless of whether the team ultimately trades for James Harden.

“We want Russ to be Russ,” coach Tyronn Lue said, “but understand what we need him to be for the team to be successful. And he’s bought in 100%. It wasn’t hard to convince him what we needed.”

Westbrook registered 13 assists, becoming the first Clippers player to do so in a season opener since Andre Miller in 2002.

He had only three turnovers.

Westbrook was uncharacteristically economical. He made five of eight shots, and scored 11 points in 29 minutes.

He wasn’t there to score. He was there to set up the team’s All-Star forwards, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Leonard scored 23 points and George a game-high 27.

“Obviously, he’s not selfish,” Leonard said. “On the court, everybody knows how he plays the game. He’s attacking the rim and that makes our life easier if we could just catch and shoot rather than dribble the basketball — you know, those are the hardest shots in a game. With him [being] able to get in the paint, not be selfish and pass us the ball when we’re open, that’s making our life easier.”

Four minutes into the game, Westbrook charged into the lane and spun around a defender. Instead of taking a contested shot, Westbrook found Leonard in the corner for an open three-pointer.

“With PG and Kawhi on the floor, he can attack, get in seams and make the right play,” Lue said. “He’s not forcing anything. The game has kind of slowed down for him and he’s been great. He understands when you get Hall of Fame players to sacrifice and to give themselves to the team and do whatever it takes to win, that’s when your team becomes really good.”

The Clippers were playing an awful Trail Blazers team that basically forfeited its season by trading Damian Lillard, but they might as well see what they really have in Westbrook before deciding whether to pursue a wild card in Harden.

Westbrook played only 10 games alongside George and Leonard last season, as George’s season ended in March and Leonard’s in April. Now, Westbrook has shared an entire training camp with them.

Westbrook’s effect on the team’s culture has already been well-chronicled. Westbrook has been a generous mentor. His full-throttle playing style has improved the quality of the team’s practices.

With the Clippers leading comfortably, the 34-year-old Westbrook played only 10 minutes in the second half. But much of his time on the bench was spent on his feet. When Leonard sank a three-pointer in the third quarter to increase the Clippers’ lead to 30, Westbrook was already standing and cheering. His enthusiasm was contagious. Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington were standing alongside him.

George, who played with Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, expected this from Westbrook.

“Just being in Oklahoma with him and playing alongside him, I just know how good of a communicator he is, how good of a connector he is,” George said. “I said this from the moment I got in Oklahoma, one of the things that I noticed right away is that he just had a relationship with every person on the team, which is rare, especially the superstar that he was in Oklahoma. It was just like he was best friends with everyone on the team and he just had a special connection with all the guys.”

Off the court, Westbrook has made a genuine effort to be personable. But none of that will matter if he can’t make the same connections on the court. On the first night of the season, he did.

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