Russell Westbrook's new role transformed the Clippers. Can it help them finally win a title?

Russell Westbrook rocks the rim with powerful flush (0:21)

Russell Westbrook rocks the rim with powerful flush (0:21)

AFTER FALLING BEHIND 25-8 early to the Denver Nuggets last Thursday, the LA Clippers were in dire need of a jolt off the bench.

That's when Russell Westbrook went to work. He found Paul George for a 3-pointer with 1:05 remaining in the first quarter. He hit Amir Coffey and Norman Powell for two more 3s on consecutive possessions early in the second quarter.

And then with 9:53 left in the second, Russ went airborne. Soaring in for a two-handed alley-oop dunk from Powell, Westbrook yanked the rim down before unleashing a scream that woke up the crowd inside Crypto.com Arena. In a six-minute burst, Westbrook scored or assisted on 15 points during a 22-6 run that cut the Nuggets' lead to one point.

And Westbrook wasn't done giving the defending champs problems. During a pair of Denver free throws after the Clippers had taken a late third-quarter lead, Westbrook mouthed directions across the paint to teammate Mason Plumlee. On the ensuing possession, Plumlee set a screen for James Harden, who then hit Westbrook for an emphatic backdoor alley-oop.

"Good to know I can still get up there and smell the air up top," the 35-year-old guard said after the Clippers held on for a 102-100 win.

On Sunday, Westbrook rallied the home crowd once again. The Clippers overcame a 26-point deficit and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers for their biggest comeback of the season. Near the end of the third quarter, Westbrook tipped an offensive rebound to Powell, who buried a pivotal 3-pointer. Then on the game's final play, Westbrook deflected the inbound pass and smothered Cavaliers guard Max Strus into an airball on the potential game-winning 3.

Westbrook celebrated that win -- their third straight at home -- with multiple shimmies at half court and some choice words toward the Cavaliers bench.

And then on Tuesday in Phoenix, Westbrook got the starting nod for an injured Harden and ignited a 35-4 opening run. Westbrook finished with his 199th career triple-double -- adding to his record for most in a career -- and became the first Clipper to have 16 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists as the team beat the Suns, 105-92, and clinched a playoff berth.

The Clippers are 7-2 since Westbrook returned from hand surgery on March 25. Despite Kawhi Leonard missing five straight games with knee inflammation, the Clippers have regained some of their early season swagger that once saw them leading the West at 34-15 on Feb. 6 before dropping 12 of their next 22 games. It left many to wonder if the team had peaked before the playoffs.

Westbrook's first full season with the Clippers has hardly gone as he expected. He began the season as the starting point guard but the late-October trade for Harden led to Westbrook becoming a sixth man for his second straight team. But unlike during his brief tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers, Westbrook's move to the bench this season was the catalyst for the Clippers' best regular season in the Leonard-George era.

"I know who I am and what I'm able to bring to the game," Westbrook told ESPN. "Nobody's able to do what I can do since I got in this league. And the reason why I'm in the position I'm in is because nobody ever knew I could do [it on a] night-in and night-out basis."

Now, Westbrook's season of adjustments continues with another challenge: coming off the bench for the first time in the postseason after making 116 career playoff starts. The team's four stars -- Leonard, George, Harden and Westbrook -- have talked all season about putting aside egos and accolades to win a title together in their hometown.

When it comes to figuring out how, George and Clippers coach Ty Lue said the team should look no further than Westbrook's move to the second unit.

"We owed it to him to make it work," George told ESPN. "All of us collectively, we know what sacrifice looks like now."

Having started 1,039 regular-season games, Westbrook has found ways this season to make an impact off the bench. He has been among the league's top defenders and continues to be the only player to average 10 points, five rebounds and five assists off the bench in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

While neither Lue nor Westbrook initially knew how the role would play out, the former MVP remained supremely confident that no one can do what he does.

"Ain't nobody better than me coming off the bench, in this league," Westbrook said.

LUE INITIALLY SAID he needed 10 games after Harden's arrival to figure things out with his quartet of stars.

But the Clippers lost six straight, including five with Harden in the lineup. When George's game-tying 3-point attempt wedged between the rim and the backboard near the end of a Nov. 14 road loss to the Nuggets, it offered a fitting symbol.

The Clippers were stuck, and something had to change even sooner than Lue had anticipated.

Following the loss in Denver as he walked toward the team bus, Lue told ESPN that he wasn't quite ready to adjust his starting lineup that included George, Harden, Leonard and Westbrook. But in 76 minutes together, they had delivered a minus-11.9 net efficiency.

The next day, Lue got a text from Westbrook. He wanted a meeting. And before practice on Nov. 16, Lue and Westbrook came to a decision that would transform the Clippers' season.

"He just said, 'Whatever I need to do for us to win, I'm willing to do,'" Lue said of his conversation with Westbrook. "'If coming off the bench is going to be the right thing to do, then I'll do that.'

"And I said, 'I don't necessarily know if that's going to be the right move. But we'll try it.'"

The meeting delayed practice. Lue, meanwhile, went to handle his media session with reporters before he could inform the team. Players learned of the move when Westbrook emerged onto the court. His practice jersey was flipped to the white side -- for reserves.

"Sacrifice," Leonard told ESPN of his reaction when he saw Westbrook arrive at the practice court. "We've been talking about it before -- not him coming off the bench -- but just about sacrificing for one another just so we could start winning. And he did that and wanted to come off the bench so we could be better.

"We've done so much in our careers already. So I think he just wants to have an opportunity to get there and win."

Westbrook explained that a change needed to happen. He trusted Lue to make it work.

"Ultimately, [it was] figuring out where the sacrifice is going to come from and who was going to take more of a sacrifice," Westbrook said. "And that came down to myself.

"The decision came to the ultimate big goal -- to win the championship."

WESTBROOK HAS BEEN in this position before. After joining the Lakers in July 2021, he started 78 games that season. But he moved to a bench role less than two weeks into the following season. He averaged 15.9 points, 7.5 assists and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 44.4% in 28.7 minutes with the Lakers, coming off the bench in 49 games that season before getting traded at the deadline to the Utah Jazz, who then worked a buyout with him.

With the Clippers, Westbrook has repeatedly talked about how happy he is. When asked about his comfort in his current Clippers' bench role, Westbrook told ESPN that part of that had to do with "being in a better place mentally."

Westbrook's scoring (11.2 points per game) and minutes (22.7 per game) have dipped to career lows and his 3-point shooting is only 27%. But Westbrook's defense has improved. He ranks in the top 10 in field goal percentage allowed as the contesting defender this season, per Second Spectrum tracking.

"When I'm on the floor, I'm able to do other things," Westbrook said. "Defend at a high level, which I think I've been doing pretty much better than anybody in the league this year."

The move has allowed Harden, who now ranks fourth in the league with 8.6 assists per game, to handle more of the playmaking role for the Clippers.

"Credit to him," Harden told ESPN. "At this point, it's whatever it takes for us to all be winners. ... He was the one that initiated the sacrifice and then from there, it's like, OK, now it's going to be more my role to be on the ball and kind of run the offense.

"[Westbrook's move was] huge. That was the start of it."

With Westbrook able to run the second unit alongside Powell -- who has emerged as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and is shooting a league-best 49.4% on catch-and-shoot 3's this season, according to Second Spectrum -- the Clippers became more balanced and resembled a championship contender starting in December. They won their first nine games of the month and went on a 26-5 tear to the top of the conference standings.

And when the Clippers' starters got off to a slow start or needed a boost, Lue relied on Westbrook to orchestrate comeback wins such as when he helped erase an 18-point deficit in the final 10:54 to beat the Brooklyn Nets in late January.

That day, Westbrook had 23 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in 31 minutes. But the only player to ever average a triple-double in a season four times is being counted on nightly to contribute in ways that don't appear in a box score.

"The problem is to the average eye, you won't see [the impact] if you look at stat sheets," Westbrook said. "You'll be like, 'Oh, well Russ had 5 points and he was terrible tonight.' But that's not necessarily actually what happens."

Despite Westbrook's career-low usage rate of 23.9% this season, the Clippers are shooting 55% off of his passes -- second only to LeBron James among players with at least 400 assist opportunities, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Westbrook is averaging a career-low 2.1 turnovers this season and is tied for the third best assist-to-turnover ratio during crunch time in the league.

And Westbrook's attack mode and hustle off the bench have been a constant.

"That energy that he brings every single night has really saved a lot of games this year," Lue said. "He was big for us last year [in the playoffs]. It's different for him [now]. But if we want to win at a high level, everyone has to sacrifice.

"And he's made the biggest sacrifice of all."

AFTER STARTING THE final 21 games of the 2022-23 season, Westbrook was thrust into a bigger role in the team's first-round series with the Suns due to injuries to George and Leonard. Westbrook contributed to the Clippers' only win in the series when he had five offensive rebounds and a late block on Devin Booker to help the Clippers steal Game 1.

"They said he was done," Lue said of Westbrook. "And he averaged 24, eight and seven in the playoffs without Kawhi or PG."

The Clippers will need Westbrook again in the playoffs. Westbrook said he isn't sure what it will feel like to come off the bench in the playoffs for the first time. But, like the offensive rebound tip to Powell or his game-clinching defense in Sunday's win over Cleveland, Westbrook knows the difference in a series can come down to a matchup or a big play.

"We just allow him to be him," George said. "So he can facilitate, be aggressive and assertive with our second unit. We love what he brings."

It's a pivotal postseason for the Clippers and their stars. Leonard and George are trying to fulfill championship expectations in their fifth season together. But while Leonard signed a three-year contract extension earlier this season, George has yet to ink his own.

Harden will be a free agent this summer. Lue has one year left on his deal. Westbrook, meanwhile, has a player option worth just over $4 million this upcoming offseason.

Westbrook is happy in L.A. and he told ESPN he's ready for whatever the future brings, whether that's playing at the Clippers' new Intuit Dome next season or bringing his unwavering confidence to another franchise.

"If I'm here, if I'm there, I'll do whatever the team is asking me to do," Westbrook said of his future. "I think there's a narrative that people have made up that I have been fighting against .... But I'm always a team-first guy.

"I know how good I still am. So it doesn't matter -- starting or coming off the bench -- because I know and understand what I bring to the game."