Russell Westbrook sat down on the bench with less than a minute left to go in the third quarter replaced by Eric Maynor.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were down by three points and had blown a six point lead earlier in the period. Westbrook was frustrated with a botched play call and vented his frustration on the bench.
Seconds later James Harden hit a three and was fouled by Jason Terry.
He hit the free throw to put the Thunder up by one and they never trailed again.
During this time Westbrook never left the bench.
Russell Westbrook has been the NBA playoffs best drama not named the Miami Heat. His overzealousness and self-indulgence in wanting to be the man have tainted the amazing run that the Thunder have had thus far.
Last night it took a turn that I felt should’ve happened earlier in the playoffs yet the timing couldn’t have been better.
Think about how much of a genius Scott Brooks looks like right now. He sat Westbrook at a point in the game where the Thunder were struggling offensively and needed a boost. In came Maynor in addition to sticking with reserves Harden and Nick Collison while starters Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka sat on the bench. Brooks stayed with all of them for the entire period and the move paid off.
Not only did Maynor do a great job of running the offense but Harden was a beast as well knocking huge shots and finishing with 23 points and Collison did what no other Thunder could do in game 1, stop Dirk Nowitzki.
Collision forced Dirk into a few turnovers and never gave him a clean look at the basket. His feistiness and aggressiveness led to good looks for the Thunder on the offensive end and eventually led to a ten point advantage and a 6 point win.
But the main story is Westbrook.
There are two sides to this story: one is that this benching should finally prove to Westbrook where he is on the alpha dog totem pole in OKC.
His internal struggle with trying to be the man over Kevin Durant has made for some good TV and lots of talk for everyone watching. We all know that Durant is the real man in charge but the message needed to be relayed to Westbrook. This was that message.
While Brooks would say that he kept his bench players in for the whole quarter because of how well they played, he can’t just overlook the fact that at some point he had to humble Westbrook. Yesterday he did that in a backhanded sort of way.
Westbrook coming out in the third quarter wasn’t a benching; it was his normal rest time. He normally checks back in at the 7 or 8 minute mark to lead the offense down the stretch. However, with the team playing so well he decided to keep Maynor in the game and leave Westbrook there to sit and wait… and wait… and wait… until the clock struck zero and he was high-fiving teammates after the win. The Thunder won while Westbrook sat and learned. Two birds, one stone.
The other way to view this is that maybe Brooks was right in his words when he said that Westbrook sat only because the bench was playing so well and not due to his poor play in key stages in the playoffs.
Last night wasn’t a mark against Westbrook; rather it was a bonus for the depth of the Thunder. For so many reserves to play in such a key stretch and stand tall is something that could last well past this series and into the finals. Now Durant and Westbrook for that matter have about a good 6 or 7 complementary guys that can step up in any situation and do what’s asked of them. Miami, Chicago or Dallas do not have that same luxury.
Throughout this whole drama Westbrook hasn’t let it get to him. Of course he was frustrated on the bench when his name wasn’t called, I mean wouldn’t you be too after being named all-NBA second team? Instead of letting his ego get the best of him he cheered for his teammates, was the first guys to hand out dap during timeouts and didn’t let reporters get to him with questions after the game.
He said that he was “good” and didn’t care as long as they won the game. A great bit of humbleness from a player who to most was letting his ego get in the way.
Now the question is what happens to Westbrook now?
Will Brooks yank him again if he goes against the game plan? Will he sulk and get upset if his number isn’t called? Will he chick up more terrible looking shots like he has done throughout the playoffs? Or will he play the type of basketball that makes him a top 3 point guard in the NBA?
Just know that every move that Westbrook makes will be looked at even closer than ever before, and if he can’t handle it then we know Coach Brooks will have no problem going to Eric Maynor again. It’s worked once before, Westbrook saw it firsthand.