WASHINGTON, D.C. — The joke was as wide open as a transition layup. Frank Vogel couldn’t help himself.
On Saturday morning, hours after Russell Westbrook had sunk a game-tying shot just ahead of the regulation buzzer thanks to a quick readjustment of his footing, the Lakers coach made a quip at the expense of his former teammate Kevin Durant, whose toe cost the Brooklyn Nets a chance to win Game 7 over Milwaukee in last year’s postseason.
“If he had just taught Kevin Durant that little footwork move that he did at the end of the game,” Vogel delivered with a hearty laugh, “it would have changed NBA history.”
Vogel’s joke – and the general feel-good vibe after that Friday victory in Toronto – underscored how much pressure had been riding on the Lakers’ shoulders over the course of an 11-game road losing streak that stretched all the way back to Jan. 25. Underperforming for much of the season, Westbrook has arguably borne the brunt of that weight – which he admitted about a week-and-a-half ago has affected his family.
But in his 22-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist effort, it seemed that Westbrook might be recapturing a little bit of his long-lost mojo that the Lakers traded for last summer. Said Vogel: “One of the highlights of our season – and it’s been a tough season for us, and specifically for him.”
While Westbrook’s efficiency has dropped to one of the lowest marks of his career (46.3% eFG), Vogel said he’s held out hope that Westbrook can still turn it up like he did for the Washington Wizards in the last 30 games of the season – helping propel them to the playoffs.
“Even when he was struggling earlier in the year, he struggled most of the year last year in Washington and finished really strong,” Vogel said. “And I do have a belief that we’re gonna get that type of production out of him down the stretch here. And last night was an example of that.”
Westbrook remains defiant about his playing style, which is sometimes brilliant and sometimes chaotic. Moments before the game-tying shot, Westbrook hurled up a bank attempt that never came close to the rim, setting up his heroics for the inbounds steal and game-tying shot.
When asked how he was able to not let that miss shake his confidence, Westbrook shot back: “I got 23,000 points. How about that?”
But there have been vulnerable moments, too. In the same press conference, Westbrook said he has leaned on his faith and his confidence as a former MVP to believe he could pull out of his recent dive.
Teammates added that they’ve tried to support Westbrook: Avery Bradley said he believed it was the team’s role to “protect our own” and keep Westbrook partially insulated from the criticism he’s been facing this season. And part of that is giving him a pat on the back, too.
James credited Westbrook for having the wherewithal to move his feet and ensure the Lakers could have a chance to win in overtime.
“Big-time IQ there on his part,” James said. “And a big-time shot by a big-time player.”