SAN FRANCISCO — Russell Westbrook said he “absolutely” believes that Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham’s decision to bring him off the bench in L.A.’s preseason finale could have caused the hamstring strain he suffered that night.
“I’ve been doing the same thing for 14 years straight,” Westbrook said following the Lakers’ 123-109 loss to the Golden State Warriors in their regular-season opener Tuesday night. “Honestly, I didn’t even know what to do pregame. Being honest, I was trying to figure out how to stay warm and loose. … That’s something I just wasn’t accustomed to.”
Westbrook was back in the starting lineup against the Warriors — playing with the first unit for the 1,005th time in 1,022 career games — after being limited in the days leading up to it because of his hamstring injury.
He played just five minutes in the exhibition loss to the Sacramento Kings on Friday. He alluded to being able to play more but choosing not to because, “I wasn’t going to risk it in a preseason game.”
Westbrook played 31 minutes against Golden State and finished with 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting, 11 rebounds, three assists, one steal and four turnovers. His plus-minus rating of minus-six was better than that of both LeBron James (-10) and Anthony Davis (-21).
Ham said he wanted Westbrook’s approach to competition to jolt his team from the opening tip.
“You want to start the game off the right way in terms of your energy and being in attack mode, and no one better than him,” said Ham, who spoke to reporters before Westbrook did following the game. “I mean, it’s what we have, and we got some key guys hurt. It’s Game 1, give them a chance to go out and compete at the highest level. I thought he was solid. I thought he was solid. A couple possessions I wish I can get back, but overall, I thought he was solid.”
Before the contest, Ham said he wanted to “establish” a consistent starting unit.
“We don’t want to be one of those teams,” he said, “where teams are swaying according to who their opponent is starting.”
However, asked whether that meant he would stick with his opening-night starters for a stretch of time moving forward, Ham would not commit.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’m a day-by-day guy.”
Davis said after the game that Westbrook’s bench role against the Kings was merely experimentation.
“I don’t think he was ever out of [the starting group],” Davis said. “I think it was a look [at a different rotation] in Sac.”
It was only the 22nd regular-season game that Davis, Westbrook and James played together since L.A. traded for Westbrook in the summer of 2021. The loss on Tuesday dropped their record together to 11-11. Yet Davis and James were encouraged.
“I think we played well,” Davis said. “We wanted to come out and everybody be aggressive. We didn’t want to — I think last year at times we were playing selfless, like, ‘Here [you take it].’ … It took away our aggression. At certain moments throughout the game, one of us three were aggressive, and it worked out for it to look good.”
As James added, “I thought we all just kind of played free. And it resulted in all three of us pretty much being efficient from the floor.”
TNT analyst Charles Barkley didn’t see it the same way.
“You know how I feel about Russell Westbrook,” Barkley said at halftime of the broadcast. “I admire him. I respect him. It’s time for the Lakers to move him. They have taken all his joy out of life and basketball. … This guy used to be so exuberant and play with great energy and great emotion, I think the wear and tear mentally last year, starting this year. … And the thing is, he’s going to get the blame no matter what, because the Lakers ain’t a championship contender. … I think he needs a fresh start, I think the Lakers need a fresh start, because they’re not contenders.”
Westbrook was asked about Barkley’s comments and whether he has lost joy for the game since joining the Lakers.
“You know, man, I’m super blessed and leaning a lot on my faith,” Westbrook said. “So, I have a lot of great friends and family, good people in my corner that support me through thick and thin, and when I have God in my corner, it doesn’t really matter what happens outside of that. I stay on course, stay focused, stay locked in. That’s all I can ask.
“Everything else that comes around it, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing, stay locked in on my craft and everything else will take care of itself.”