May 27, 2024

The night before he returned to the city where he became an NBA All-Star and most valuable player, Clippers guard Russell Westbrook said he believes that he can still “do anything on the floor at all times” — and Westbrook particularly wants his due as a defender.

In helping hold Mavericks star Luka Doncic to an inefficient offensive performance in the Clippers’ 120-111 victory Wednesday in Dallas, the team’s ninth consecutive win, Westbrook at one point forced a steal and held up his index finger, a celebration often used for players making their case for the league’s first-team all-defense honors.

“Ain’t too many people defending better than me at this point if we keeping it honest,” Westbrook said. “But I’ll let the numbers speak for that and let y’all talk about it but we just keeping it a buck, ain’t too many people defending better than me at this position all around the league, honestly.”

In 15 NBA seasons Westbrook has never been named to an all-defense team. Would such an honor bring validation for him?

“I don’t need it, but unfortunately I haven’t had one because, I don’t know,” Westbrook said. “But I’ve been very deserving of it at some point in my career but if that’s what happens this year, I’d be grateful and blessed for that to happen.

“But I’m going to keep defending my ass off every night and I let it take care of itself.”

Westbrook guarded Doncic on 20 partial possessions Wednesday, according to league tracking data, and Doncic made one of his two field goals, adding two assists and two turnovers, with Westbrook as his primary defender. Some of his influence wasn’t captured in raw statistics, such as the times his physicality denied Doncic from catching the ball. Overall Dallas players made four of their five shots against Westbrook’s defense.

“I just thought Russell’s energy was phenomenal,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Coming in guarding Luka early, picking him up full court, denied him the basketball.”

Per 36 minutes this season, Westbrook is averaging 1.7 steals, his highest rate in five seasons, and 7.0 defensive rebounds, his highest average in three seasons. Advanced metrics offer split views. The Clippers are three points per 100 possessions better defensively when Westbrook is off the floor this season, but defensive rating is tied strongly to a team’s overall performance, and is thus a more incomplete measurement of a player’s impact. As gauged by defensive box plus-minus, which attempts to measure the value added by an individual defender compared to a league-average player, Westbrook has rated highly, among the league’s top-10 guards.

“I embrace getting stops and guarding whoever needs to be guarded and I believe I can guard anybody,” Westbrook said.

Westbrook’s comments came one month into his transition from being a starter every game of last season with the Clippers to a new role off the bench, a change that initially frustrated the veteran guard. In 17 games as a reserve since he has averaged 20.2 minutes per game, including 23 against Dallas, his most in nine games because the Clippers played without second-leading scorer Paul George, who was ill. The Clippers outscored Dallas by 15 points in Westbrook’s minutes, his best plus-minus since Oct. 31.

“I know what I’m capable of doing at a very, very high level, whatever’s asked of me for this team, I’m gonna do it,” Westbrook said. “And I’ve been able to do that. That’s what I’ve been doing. So whenever my opportunity presents itself, I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability, play as hard as I can like i’ve always done, lead like I’ve always done, as well, defend like i’ve always done.”

In his condensed role, Westbrook has been vocal in “just taking the challenge of guarding the best player, and he loves that,” Lue said. “He loves that challenge. And, you know, he’s been great at it. He’s been phenomenal coming off the bench, like I said, and since he’s done that, it has turned our team around. And so just all about sacrifice and just putting together wins, any way we can. And you see we’re having fun doing it now.”

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