PHOENIX — The best coaches can “take yours and beat theirs and take theirs and beat yours,” that strategy often exemplified in the opening games of the NBA playoffs.
Ty Lue, sporting a glimmer in his eye in the pregame media session, said he loved the chess game, the back and forth with strategies between games.
He clearly played the longest chess game known to man in repeatedly instilling confidence in Russell Westbrook, resisting the urge to sit the struggling guard.
Westbrook’s shots missed short, wide and long — but he often recovered shots short, wide and long, in addition to playing the best defensive game perhaps in his career to help the Los Angeles Clippers steal home-court advantage from the Phoenix Suns with a 115-110 win at Footprint Center on Sunday night.
Former New York Knick John Starks shot 3 for 18 in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, a clunker for the ages as the Houston Rockets won their first title. If that number haunts Starks, it feels like Westbrook’s lucky one as he did Starks one better with an extra miss for good measure.
But he was literally everywhere, with 10 rebounds, five on each end. Defending his former teammate Kevin Durant. Missing layups. Crashing the offensive glass. Throwing away an entry pass after a timeout with the game hanging in the balance.
“At this position, humbly speaking, nobody’s a better rebounder than me,” Westbrook said.
It was the best worst game Westbrook could conjure, and seemingly, only Lue would be the type to continue to ride with him, hell or high water. Or rather, hell and high water.
“‘Don’t get discouraged about making shots or missing shots,'” Lue said he told Westbrook in the third quarter. “‘Because you bring way more to his team than just making shots.’
“And I thought he was phenomenal tonight.”
Westbrook stripped Devin Booker on a drive with 10 seconds left and the Clippers leading by 3, and while Booker was complaining for a foul, the relentless one chased after the ball. He knocked it off Booker to secure possession and the game for the upstart Clippers.
“It’s a little bit of luck,” Westbrook confessed, in a contrast from his “best rebounder” boast. “But also just being aware of kind of what’s going on. Trying to make winning plays. But just not giving in.”
The possession before that, he missed a wing triple but the ball found its way to him and he was fouled going after another rebound, calmly swishing two free throws to put the Clippers up 3 with 17 seconds left.
Kawhi Leonard was the consistent key for the Clippers, who took a 16-point lead in the first half over a slow-starting Suns team. He seemed to grow stronger as the game progressed, playing 42 minutes and scoring a game-high 38 with 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
“I thought he got a little winded early [in the fourth],” Lue said “But he was right back ready to go. That’s what we’ve been building for, this moment right here. He’s gonna play heavy minutes and he was great tonight.”
The Clippers clearly fed off Westbrook’s energy and want-to, even if it was hurting the team at times. Lue warned his team it couldn’t ease its way into this series. Even though the Clippers aren’t a typical fifth seed, the Suns are nobody’s fourth seed in a normal year.
Punch first was clearly the mindset, and nobody punches faster and with more urgency than Russell Westbrook. With no Paul George likely for the entire series, there’s much more responsibility to dole out, more real estate to take — and so much of that leaves Westbrook.
Easing into anything isn’t part of his chemical makeup. So with that said, Lue chose to ride with his point guard — the point guard he pulled for when Westbrook was on the open market, the one who was a half-step away from NBA roadkill.
“It just gets crazy because he’s not afraid of the moment,” Lue said. “He’s not scared. That’s half the battle, not being scared, being afraid. He hit two big free throws to pull us ahead. That’s huge and that’s who he is.”
Westbrook’s recent career is full of mixed-bag performances, but perhaps his desperation, or own personal pride, has led him to being a different version of himself — more efficient than his stint with the Lakers for sure — but this was a throwback in the worst way until it wasn’t.
“I wasn’t thinking about that when he was too good for us defensively tonight, and so you’re not gonna make shots every night,” Lue said. “You never want to penalize the guy who’s missing shots. Everything else he brings with his passing, his defense, his pace, his toughness, you know, things like that. That’s what we need from him every night.”
It was a game of statistical anomalies. Durant was clearly the best Sun, and had his moments tête-à-tête style with Leonard. But he went with just one shot for the last five minutes; his last attempt, a wing triple, fell easily and it seemed like he would abandon his all-around game to get into takeover mode to save the Suns.
He was being a playmaker while Booker (26 points) and Chris Paul were easing their way into the game, and missed his first five shots before easily and expectedly settling into a rhythm. The 15 shots Durant took isn’t on par for his usual playoff performances, but he doesn’t have a big enough sample size with this Suns team to know what that feels like. He sprayed the ball to Torrey Craig (22 points) and Deandre Ayton (18 points, 8 rebounds), but for all their effectiveness, he needs to be a clear focus for the Suns from here on out.
It was his first loss in a Suns uniform, and a stark reminder to the feeling many had the last time Phoenix fans left a playoff game: That destruction at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of last year’s semifinals that began to put the wheels in motion ever-so-slowly for the Durant move to happen.
So much had to happen for Westbrook to be in position to be a Clipper, and for the Clippers to want him. So much has to happen for the Clippers to upset the Suns while missing an indispensable player — so much had to happen for the game to find its way to Westbrook’s hands.
And yet, it did.