ORLANDO, Fla. — After his last shot of the game, a familiar side of Russell Westbrook emerged.
He ducked inside against Cole Anthony, pinged a shot from the baseline off the glass, then broke out his classic “Rock the Baby” celebration – a joyful and swaggering finish to what had been a marathon week for the embattled star, his embattled coach and an embattled team.
Just 48 hours earlier, Westbrook had been watching from the end of the bench as the Lakers bumbled the finish of a loss to the Indiana Pacers. But on Friday night in Orlando, the 2017 NBA MVP showed more of the game that the Lakers signed up for when they traded for him in the first place.
Out of a 116-105 victory over the last-place Orlando Magic, Westbrook’s 18 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and three steals is not a stat line that will be among the most revered of his career. But given what was at stake for the 33-year-old and the struggling Lakers (23-23), who were on the wrong end of an eight-point halftime deficit, he helped deliver a win that helped quell a week of chaos.
Westbrook was at the center of it, especially after Wednesday when Coach Frank Vogel benched him for the final four minutes of the loss to the Pacers. But from that game, which Westbrook admitted had left him upset – “more upset that we didn’t win the game” – he sought to move on from that low moment.
“My job as a player, as a professional is to do my job, continue to find ways to be able to help impact winning,” he said. “That’s all I was thinking about and turned the page to do and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Westbrook was a key figure, not only for his scoring and playmaking on a night when the Lakers started miserably slow on offense, but for his presence in a switch-heavy third-quarter lineup. After the Lakers stalled in the second quarter, they got off to a 17-2 start to the third after subbing in 10-day contract player Stanley Johnson for veteran center Dwight Howard and playing LeBron James at center throughout the second half.
Small-ball switching unlocked the defensive intensity and an offensive jolt: The Magic (8-39) didn’t score their first field goal until the 5:24 mark – after they had already missed eight shots and turned the ball over four times.
As he’s been since All-Star big man Anthony Davis was injured last month, James was at the heart of the Lakers’ offense, leading the team with 29 points. His scoring streak of 16 straight games with 25 points or more is tied for the second-longest of his career, and he’s just the fourth Laker to tie together such a string, joining Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor and Shaquille O’Neal – the last of whom was watching from a courtside seat.
But he was well-supported by role players who rose to the occasion following the slog of a first half. Avery Bradley’s pressure was credited with helping turn around the defensive effort, while Johnson shot a pair of corner 3-pointers during the surge on his way to 11 points.
Carmelo Anthony scored 19 of his 23 points after halftime, and the 37-year-old reserve seemed to recognize how much his contributions were needed to kick off the longest trip of the season (six games) with a victory. If the Lakers had lost, it would have only fed into a tenuous situation that sees Vogel’s job status subject to game-by-game referendum, and fanned the flames of Westbrook’s own recent struggles.
“We try not to pay attention to the chaos: It is what it is,” Anthony said. “People are going to talk. Me personally, I don’t really know what people are saying. I try to stay away from it. That’s how I cope with it. But for the most part, I think we do a great job of just staying together in that locker room. That’s what’s important, that we never waver. We never lose our confidence.”
The Magic were paced by rookie Jalen Suggs’ 22 points, and the Gonzaga product looked like he was gaining confidence in the second quarter when the Magic led by as much as 10. But by game’s end, the Lakers felt comfortable enough with a double-digit lead to sub out James and Westbrook – on their own accord.
Just two days after taking out Westbrook in an effort to win, his head coach had a very different tune about the fiery point guard, justified by the results.
“Russ played a really good basketball game,” Vogel said. “He came in very focused and played efficient offensively and brought a pure energy to the game. He just wanted to impose his will, play his part and played a hell of a game.”