SAN FRANCISCO — If you took a brief glance at Thursday night’s prime-time, nationally televised game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, you might have thought Russell Westbrook was doing ball-handling drills in an empty gym. It looked like one of those commercials where Giannis Antetokounmpo and the dude from that Marvel movie erase bystanders in the background of their photo with the swipe of a finger.
The marriage between Westbrook and the Clippers was somewhat puzzling from the start — the team had just started to play well behind a healthy Kawhi Leonard, they’d finally discovered what appeared to be a long-term solution at point guard with Terance Mann and they’d just added backcourt depth at the trade deadline with Bones Hyland and Eric Gordon. Signing Westbrook was questionable even when he was expected to be a spark plug off the bench. Starting him in his first game in a Clipper uniform seemed destined for disaster.
Sure enough, after an uninspiring 115-91 loss to the shorthanded Warriors, the Clippers are now 0-4 in the Russell Westbrook era.
The most concerning fit issue that Westbrook brings to the Clippers was on display early and often by the Warriors, who defended him like he was a clicker from “The Last of Us,” staying as far away as possible.
Opponents have defended Westbrook with centers at various points during his career, but the wily veteran Draymond Green — no stranger to manipulating opponents with head games — sagged completely off of the former MVP knowing that any jump shot he attempted was a victory for the defense. The result was a clogged lane for potential drives from Leonard and Paul George, with an extra defender ready to rotate to any shooter other than Westbrook.
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue, who was going over scenarios with Westbrook on a white board in the locker room before the game, said he didn’t do a good enough job preparing his team for that very scenario. Even so, Westbrook found success against the extreme drop coverage at times, particularly in the first half. Having no defender within six feet of you allows you to see plays develop and get passes through that might otherwise be deflected, as Westbrook did here with this dime to George for a layup.
Westbrook, coincidentally, could also learn a thing or two from Green, who has faced similar defenses throughout his career and countered them with dribble hand-offs and screens to free up teammates. That’s what Lue wants to see more of from Westbrook if and when he faces that type of defense again.
The problems that Westbrook creates on offense as a non-shooter — particularly next to a center like Ivica Zubac or Mason Plumlee — are very real. But the Clippers aren’t worried about the extreme dropping causing too many issues for them in the future.
“I thought he countered it the right way. The problem was we just missed shots,” George said after Thursday’s loss, in which the Clippers connected on 9 of 43 from 3-point range. “A lot of us just didn’t make the open ones. So I thought the way they played him — he countered it and was in attack mode and was playing fast.”
The gimmick defense against Westbrook will get the headlines, but multiple Clippers, including Lue, attributed Thursday’s loss to a lack of effort, particularly on the defensive end. The Warriors laid a 42-16 third-quarter smackdown on the Clippers, which effectively put the game to rest.
Prolonged defensive lapses have been common during the four-game losing streak, lowlighted by a 176-175 double-overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings, the second-highest scoring NBA game of all time. Lue said he wants to trim down his rotation soon, and they haven’t had much time to incorporate their new pieces, but the Clippers don’t think that should be a factor for a veteran group.
“We’ve all been in winning situations and there should be no excuses,” Gordon said after the loss to the Warriors. “We’ve got to have better effort. We’ve got to be — more attention to detail. To me, it’s all on us players, and we’ve got to bring it more.”
The Clippers don’t have much time to figure things out. After Thursday’s loss, the team that many predicted to advance to the Western Conference finals, if not farther, sat in play-in position at No. 7, just one game ahead of the No. 11 Los Angeles Lakers and No. 12 Portland Trail Blazers in the loss column. The Clippers have a difficult remaining schedule, including three games against the second-place Memphis Grizzlies and one against the supercharged Phoenix Suns.
There’s no time to mess around, and it ultimately could come down to effort and urgency.
“You gotta to be tougher, and that’s the bottom line,” Lue said. “When stuff don’t go your way, it shows you what you’re made of. I’m confident that we have a good team, and they have to be the same way. They’ve got to feel the same confidence. … My thing is just, you know, having that toughness, having that mindset that, OK things are not going well, and let’s do something about it.”