Russell Westbrook had a great game for the Lakers on Sunday.He had 20 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists, his fourth, the most in history. He’s done great things for this Lakers team. He’ll never be a good fit for LeBron James, but he’s good at what he does.
Unfortunately, those good things rarely come in crunch time, and Westbrook is an impulsive wild card who simply can’t be expected to rein in his stubborn confidence and get out of his own — and the Lakers’ — way.
It happened again Sunday, when Westbrook decided to go one-on-one with Joel Embiid on the final possession of the game, with the Lakers trailing by a point, instead of passing the ball to James. To say possession was unsuccessful would be an understatement. It was a disaster.
First, let’s praise Westbrook. He guarded Embiid at the other end, holding ground when Embiid tried to back him up to force him to fade back from the free-throw line, but Embiid missed. Westbrook grabs the rebound. He has done his work. The final property should belong to James.
LeBron could have been more confident receiving the ball from Westbrook, but he was on the other side of the court and time was tight. Once it was determined that Westbrook would attack, he decided to distance himself. This is where Darwin Ham should have saved Westbrook from himself and ensured the game ended on LeBron’s watch by calling a timeout. But Hamm said afterwards that he never considered calling a timeout because he liked Westbrook’s game against Embiid.
“I’ll take this situation twice a day of the week and on Sunday,” says Ham.
Absolutely not. That’s a coach trying to get his players to support and protect his own players. The property is a wreck and you can see it happening nearby in slow motion. Even if Ham likes the game initially, once Westbrook fumbles, there’s no way around that. If Ham had called a timeout at that point, with about seven seconds left, he could have devised a play that allowed LeBron to get the ball and ensure the Lakers had a good view of the rim.
Coaches love “matchups” more than they should. A lot of data shows this, but there should be a gut feeling here, an instinct. Anyone who has seen Russ act forcefully in this situation knows what to expect. It changes in a familiar way. Ham had time to stop it. He didn’t.
To be fair, Westbrook seemed to get fouled by Embiid during the game. Westbrook said as much after the game, adding that he knew the game wasn’t decided by a single possession, even the last one.
Westbrook likely has an opinion on fouls.
We’ll see on Monday when the last two-minute report comes out. Lakers fans have been paying attention to this a lot lately. But for me, a foul call could have saved a bad decision. It’s still simple: Westbrook shouldn’t be allowed to control the ball.
In these situations, it’s usually better not to call a timeout when you’re grabbing the defense in transition rather than giving them a chance to set up. Of course, you design the game anyway when the ball is already in the hands of the players. But that’s not the case here. All five of the Sixers came back, and the best player didn’t get the ball. Westbrook, on paper, I think, Hamm thinks this is a favorable matchup, but when it comes to creating offense in a game, your only option “every day of the week and twice on Sunday” is LeBron James and Not Russell Westbrook – winning possession.
It was the second time in the past three days that Ham might have screwed up a late-game situation. On Friday, he allowed Luka Doncic to go one-on-one instead of blitzing/teaming him with the Lakers leading by three. Doncic again unexpectedly hit a game-tying step-back 3-pointer, and the Lakers ultimately lost in double overtime.
“I was kicking my own ass,” Hamm said afterward. “In that case, I need to guide better. We should blitz [Luka]. Or at least force him inside the arc. “
In that case, not forcing the ball out of Doncic’s hands with a double-team wasn’t Hamm’s biggest mistake — or the first. The Lakers should have fouled at the outset. These coaches who let their teams try to tie the game with 3-pointers in the final seconds instead of fouls obviously don’t believe in math. We like to say that coaches fall into two camps when dealing with three situations at the end of a game: those who foul and those who don’t. It’s a euphemism. It should be the smart group and the unsmart group.
Either way, Ham has a chance to pull one back for the Lakers on Sunday and at least put them in the best position to win. That position is the ball in LeBron’s hands. Not Westbrook’s. That doesn’t mean LeBron will hit the game-winning shot or find a teammate for the game-winning shot. No one can predict the future. You just play smart odds. It should be called a pause. But in fact, it’s not. The Lakers lost. It really is that simple.