SAN ANTONIO — Russell Westbrook had blood covering his face after taking a flagrant foul to his forehead when LeBron James intervened to pull the Los Angeles Lakers point guard away from the fray and cover the cut with a towel in the third quarter Saturday.
It wasn’t the flashiest sequence the pair were involved in together in L.A.’s 143-138 win over the Spurs — that distinction belongs to their double alley-oop in the first half — but it was the most significant.
“His health is more important than the game of basketball,” James said after the game. “So just tried to stop that and let the training staff do their job after we got him over to the bench.”
Spurs big man Zach Collins caught Westbrook across the head with his right forearm while trying to defend a put-back attempt by Westbrook with 2:00 remaining in the third quarter. Westbrook sprung to his feet to confront Collins when James pulled him away from the Spurs players gathered in the paint and toward half court.
“I actually saw the cut right when it happened once he got up off the floor and wanted to, uh, wanted to do something to Zach,” said James, who led the Lakers with 39 points and 11 rebounds, going 7-for-12 from 3 and 10-for-10 from the foul line.
After an officials video review, Collins was assessed a flagrant 2 foul, which comes with an ejection. Westbrook was given a technical foul for his reaction.
“I was confused on that one myself,” Westbrook said of the tech. “I wasn’t sure why I got one, but I’ll check with the league and talk to them about it and we’re figure out why that was. Maybe it was because I probably hopped up or something. I’m not sure.”
When asked if James was protecting him from any type of retaliation towards Collins, Westbrook said, “probably so.”
The Lakers’ three-game road trip started against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday with Patrick Beverley shoving Deandre Ayton in retaliation to Ayton taunting Lakers swingman Austin Reaves, which resulted in a three-game suspension for Beverley.
“Once I’m bleeding all over the place I was able to calm down and take care of that and I moved forward,” said Westbrook, who had 11 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in 27 minutes.
He was able to return to the court to finish the game after having the laceration treated by the Lakers’ medical personnel who were able to close it up without using stitches.
James’ and Westbrook’s on-court partnership has been clunky since L.A. traded for the 2017 NBA MVP in the summer of 2021. The Lakers failed miserably at reaching their championship aspiration last season and Westbrook was relegated to a bench role this season.
However, things looked in sync Saturday.
“Before we became teammates, we’ve always been like brothers, and cool, and things of that nature,” James said.
First-year Lakers coach Darvin Ham said James coming to Westbrook’s side was emblematic of the team culture he is hoping to build.
“That’s what togetherness looks like,” Ham said. “Being there for your teammate. [Westbrook] takes a shot to the head and you don’t want to escalate the situation. You want to try to calm him down. You got a guy with blood all over his face who is understandably upset and just having Bron there, it shows a brotherhood. We need that type of image, that action, that belief in one another. We need that to represent us as a team and as a franchise.”
L.A. won for the fifth time in the last six games, withstanding the absence of Anthony Davis, who was out with a left calf contusion, to keep its momentum.
The play of the game came late in the second quarter with the aforementioned double alley-oop. James stole the ball near center court and Westbrook streaked up the right side of the court in transition. Tre Jones was the only San Antonio defender backpedaling and James lofted a pass over Jones’ head to Westbrook, who leaped towards the basket to catch it. Rather than finish the play himself, Westbrook caught it and passed it back to James in midair.
“Russ being an elite passer on this team, an elite passer in this game for quite a while, I figured I’d keep trailing and see if he’ll throw it back up, and he did,” James said. “And I was able to reward that.”
James finished the play with a one-handed dunk to give L.A. a 70-64 lead.
“Bron is well known as always trailing,” Westbrook said. “So, just me knowing that and being able to make that read and put the pass where he would be able to finish.”
The connection made an impression on the team.
“That’s something you just don’t see every day — two talented offensive players like that being so unselfish with each other,” said Lakers center Thomas Bryant. “That’s something that translates to everyone on the team, everyone sees that.”