If deciding whether to start Russell Westbrook was Darvin Ham’s first big test as Lakers head coach, picking up the pieces after wild postgame comments is certainly the second.
With the Clippers up next in a 10-game gauntlet to start the season, Westbrook and LeBron James put some of the Lakers’ uncomfortable truths squarely in the spotlight.
First, following the team’s 123-109 loss to the Warriors in the opener, Westbrook said his hamstring injury was “absolutely” related to coming off the bench in the team’s preseason finale.
“I’ve been doing the same thing for 14 years straight. Honestly, I didn’t even know what to do pregame,” Westbrook said. “Being honest, I was trying to figure out how to stay warm and loose. For me, obviously the way I play the game, it’s fast-paced, quick, stop-and-go. And I just happened to, when I subbed in, felt something.
“Didn’t know what it was, but I wasn’t going to risk it in a preseason game. But definitely wasn’t something I was used to. Wasn’t warm enough.”
The comments cast doubt on the viability of bringing Westbrook off the bench to run the team’s second unit, an option that Ham and Westbrook discussed during the summer.
“I thought he was solid,” Ham said of Westbrook’s play against Golden State. “A couple of possessions I wish we could get back. But overall I thought he was solid.”
He scored 19 points to go with 11 rebounds, three assists and four turnovers in just less than 31 minutes.
“You want to start the game off the right way in terms of your energy and being in attack mode,” Ham said. “And no one better than him.”
With the media room still buzzing following Westbrook’s postgame interview, James made it clear he wasn’t interested in sugarcoating truths about the Lakers’ shortcomings.
Like they did in five of their six preseason games, the team struggled badly from three-point range, missing a combination of contested and wide-open three-point shots.
“I think we’re getting great looks and I think there also could be teams giving us great looks. I mean, to be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting,” James said. “And that’s just what the truth of the matter is. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.
“That doesn’t deter us from still trying to get great shots. When you get those opportunities, you take them. But we’re not sitting here with a bunch of 40-plus [percent] career three-point shooting guys.”
James hits three-of-10, the Lakers rallying (really) to finish 10 of 40 from three.
“They are all open looks designed within the system,” Ham said. “Guys just got to step up and knock down the shots. That’s nothing to be explained in that regard.”
Asked if it’s possible for a team to win when the three-point shot is such a big part of modern basketball, James said the Lakers need to find a way.
“You continue to defend. You continue to trust the shot. You put in the work. And if you put the work out on the floor when the cameras are not watching, then you trust it,” he said. “You trust it. And I don’t see myself missing the open looks that I had tonight,” James said. “And if everybody is putting the work in, you live with those results. That’s all you can do. You continue to defend, you continue to push the ball, you continue to share the ball, you continue to play for one another.
“… If you had a football analogy, and you had a bunch of guys that were underneath route runners and wondering why the quarterback is not throwing 20-plus [yard] passes down the field. That’s how the team is constructed. That don’t mean you can’t win. Brady did it.”
The postgame chatter came after the Lakers didn’t look in the same class as the defending champs despite strong offensive games from Anthony Davis, James and Westbrook. The game got away from the Lakers in the third quarter.
“We got to stay on our toes, be able to move onto the next play. Having a next-play mentality is huge, and staying competitive. And, again, it only has to take one guy or two guys,” Ham said. “And they genuinely care, so that’s [why] they have the disappointment in the first place. But no one is going to feel sorry for you, especially the defending fields.
“Like, you got to have a short memory. Whether you make a shot, or you miss a shot, you turn the ball over, or whatever, you got to have a short memory and get on to the next play immediately. That has to be something that’s in our fabric and not just against Golden State, but against the entire league.’
The next tough test is the Clippers. And really, for the first 10 games of the Lakers’ season, things will mostly stay that way.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.