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On a night when Westbrook labored with his shot and went 3-for-19 from the field, he made up for all the misfires by doing a little bit of everything in a tightly contested fourth quarter against the Suns and delivering the full Russell Westbrook experience in Phoenix.
Westbrook hauled in 11 rebounds (five offensive), dished eight assists and disrupted Phoenix with three blocks and two steals to help Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers stun the Suns 115-110 and steal Game 1 of their first-round playoff series at Footprint Center on Sunday night.
The Clippers handed Kevin Durant his first defeat as a Sun despite Durant having 27 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
In his return to the playoffs since tearing an ACL in the second round in 2021, Leonard added to his sterling postseason reputation with 38 points, five rebounds and five assists to help the underdog Clippers win despite not having an injured Paul George, who is expected to miss the first round with a sprained right knee sprain, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported earlier Sunday.
Leonard scored 13 of his points in the fourth quarter, including drilling back-to-back 3-pointers to turn a one-point lead into a 106-101 advantage with two minutes remaining. He also found Eric Gordon open for a 3 when he drew multiple Suns defenders to him in the paint to put the Suns down six.
The Clippers, though, couldn’t have pulled this one out without Westbrook, who had a very eventful night.
At halftime, Westbrook took a shortcut from the Clippers locker room to the court through a club lounge area where fans were situated. Westbrook was recorded on video exchanging words with a fan while a Clippers security guard stood between the two of them.
The Suns, in a statement after the game, said they were conducting a review of the incident. Westbrook had already spoken to the media before the video started to circulate on social media.
Entering Game 1, all eyes were on Leonard against Durant, who was making his Phoenix playoff debut. After missing all of last season and ramping himself up to get to this point, Leonard logged 42 exhausting minutes in his playoff return.
“That’s what we’ve been saving up for,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said of Leonard playing over 40 minutes. “This moment here in the playoffs, we have to play heavy minutes, especially with PG being out, being short-handed, and he was great tonight.”
But Leonard got help when he needed it the most from Westbrook in the fourth. Earlier in the game, fans took delight in every Westbrook miss. Lue told the point guard not to let his poor shooting night impact all the other positive impactful plays Westbrook makes for the Clippers.
Westbrook was relentless crashing the glass, grabbing six rebounds in the fourth quarter, two offensive, while seeming to keep more balls alive and out of the Suns’ hands — like when the Clippers managed to keep a defensive rebound away from the Suns three times on one possession while clinging to a 109-108 lead with under a minute left.
“It is (heart), it’s timing, it’s the will to win,” Westbrook said of his ability to rebound for his size. “Be able to make plays. Understanding time, scoring, possession.
“At this position, humbly speaking, nobody a better rebounder than me.”
Westbrook had three assists in the fourth, and when Durant denied Leonard the ball, the point guard posted up Booker and drew a foul to hit a pair of free throws with 17.7 seconds left to give the Clippers a three-point lead.
His block on Booker came on the very next possession. Westbrook guarded Durant at times and provided help defense several times on his former Oklahoma City teammate.
Asked if he has ever seen a player shoot 3-for-19 but make so many winning plays, Lue said he had not.
“Just saw it tonight,” Lue said. “He was mad about missing shots. And I said, ‘Listen, your shot is not important. Take good shots, take the right shots, but what you bring to our team is way more valuable, and that’s rebounding the basketball.’
“That’s the three offensive rebounds at the end of game against the extra possession; the defense on KD; the stop on Book at the end, and defensively he was locked in.”
Westbrook knows something about making winning plays despite frigid shooting. The former MVP shot 3-for-19 but still finished with 19 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists and two steals to lead the Washington Wizards to a 122-114 Game 4 win against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2021 playoffs.
“I don’t know,” Westbrook said when asked what it is about him shooting 3-for-19 and winning playoff games. “But I guess that’s a secret number. We won both games, but s— if it works, I’m good with that.”
Westbrook’s all-around effort in Game 1 is an example of why Leonard, George and Lue told Clippers management to add Westbrook at the All-Star break after the point guard was bought out of his contract by Utah.
“He’s a Hall of Fame point guard,” Leonard said. “He’s been big in playoffs before. He’s been to the Finals. I expect him to play great and do his job.”