Russell Westbrook played a good game for the Lakers on Sunday. He finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, notching his fourth triple-double off the bench, the most in recorded history. He does good things for this Lakers team. He will never be a good fit with LeBron James, but he does good things.
Those good things, unfortunately, rarely come in crunch time, where Westbrook is an impulsive, wild-card player who simply cannot be counted on to reign in his bullheaded confidence and get out of his own -- and the Lakers' -- way.
It happened again on Sunday when Westbrook decided to go one on one with Joel Embiid in the game's final possession, with the Lakers trailing by one, rather than get the ball to James. To say the possession didn't work out would be an understatement. It was a disaster.
This is an indescribably bad possession. pic.twitter.com/isDj3P77PP— Chris Mannix (@SIChrisMannix) January 16, 2023
First, let's give Westbrook credit. He defended Embiid on the other end, holding his ground as Embiid tried to back him down to force a fadeaway from the foul line, which Embiid missed. Westbrook got the rebound. He had done his job. The final possession should've belonged to James.
LeBron could've been more assertive in getting the ball from Westbrook, but he was on the other side of the court, and the clock was ticking. Once it was clear that Westbrook would attack, he decided to stay spaced. This is where Darvin Ham should have saved Westbrook from himself and made sure the game ended on LeBron's watch by calling a timeout. But Ham said afterward that he never considered calling a timeout because he liked the Westbrook vs. Embiid matchup.
"I'll take that scenario every day of the week and twice on Sundays," Ham said.
Absolutely not. That is a coach trying to have his guy's back and perhaps protect his own. This possession was a wreck, and you could see it happening damn near in slow motion. Even if Ham initially liked the matchup, once Westbrook fumbled the ball, there was no way that was going to work out. Had Ham called timeout at that moment, with still roughly seven seconds on the clock, he could've designed a play to get LeBron the ball and ensure the Lakers a good look at the basket.
Coaches love "matchups" more than they should. A lot of data suggests this, but there should be a gut feeling in play here, an instinct. Anyone who has watched Russ force action in situations like this knew how this would go. It was devolving in a familiar fashion. Ham had time to stop it. He didn't.
To be fair, Westbrook appears to have been fouled on the play by Embiid. Westbrook asserted as much after the game when he also said he knows this game wasn't decided by one possession, even the last one.
“I couldn’t get my hand up to shoot because [Embiid] was grabbing it.” Westbrook on the final play of the game and setting the record for triple-doubles off the bench. pic.twitter.com/ZiYKKJej4U— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 16, 2023
Westbrook might very well have a point about the foul.
Joel Embiid grabbing Russell Westbrook's wrist:pic.twitter.com/eGN7eCWCpG https://t.co/657IXBGEbR— 𝐓𝐚𝐥𝐤𝐢𝐧' 𝐍𝐁𝐀 (@_Talkin_NBA) January 16, 2023
A closer look.
Embiid fully grabbed Russell Westbrook’s wrist on the final play. pic.twitter.com/BnPJJp8WkW— Lakers All Day Everyday (@LADEig) January 16, 2023
We'll see when the Last Two Minute Report comes out on Monday. Lakers fans have been tuning in for that a lot lately. But to me, a foul call would've bailed out a bad decision in the first place. This is still simple: Westbrook should not have been allowed to control that possession.
Often it's a better play in these situations not to call timeout when you're catching the defense in transition rather than giving them a chance to set. Certainly, when the ball is already in the hands of the player, you would design the play anyway. But that wasn't the case here. The Sixers had all five guys back, and the best player didn't have the ball. Westbrook had, on paper, I suppose, what Ham believes was an advantageous matchup, but the only thing you take "every day of the week and twice on Sundays" is LeBron James over Russell Westbrook when it comes to creating offense in a game-winning possession.
This is the second time Ham has potentially botched a late-game situation in the last three days. On Friday, he allowed Luka Doncic to play one on one rather than blitzing/doubling him with the Lakers up by three. Doncic, again, pretty predictably, hit the game-tying step-back 3-pointer as the Lakers eventually lost in double overtime.
"I'm kicking myself in the butt," Ham said afterward. "I need to coach a little better in that instance. We should've blitzed [Luka]. Or at least forced him inside the 3-point line."
Not forcing the ball out of Doncic's hands with a double team wasn't Ham's biggest mistake -- or first -- in that situation. The Lakers should've just fouled to begin with. These coaches that let teams attempt game-tying 3-pointers in the waning seconds rather than foul apparently don't believe in math. We like to say that coaches fall into two camps in handling up-three scenarios at the end of games: the foul group, and the don't foul group. That's a euphemism. It should be the smart group and the not-smart group.
Either way, Ham had a chance to get one back for the Lakers on Sunday by at least putting them in the best position to win. That position was with the ball in LeBron's hands. Not Westbrook's. That doesn't mean LeBron would've hit a game-winner or found a teammate for a game-winner. Nobody can predict the future. You simply play the smart odds. A timeout should've been called. It wasn't. And the Lakers lost. It really is as simple as that.