Though the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to knot the Western Conference Finals at one game apiece on Thursday with a 106-100 win over the Dallas Mavericks, a curious decision by head coach Scott Brooks raised plenty of eyebrows. Brooks drastically altered his late-game rotation, benching most of the starters, including Russell Westbrook, for the fourth quarter. With Kevin Durant leading the way and Westbrook on the bench, the Thunder were able to pull-away and tie the series up.
After the game, Scott Brooks said he simply stuck with the hot hand to close the game. The reserves were doing a great job on both ends of the floor, so Brooks kept Westbrook and the rest of the starters, sans Kevin Durant, on the bench.
"Sticking with Eric over Russell ... I thought Eric did a good job. I've done it a few times this year. We weren't getting a lot of things done. And this time coming out I stayed with Eric. Eric was terrific handling the decisions on the court"
Durant followed Brooks' lead, noting the decision had nothing to do with Westbrook and everything to do with the play of the reserves in the fourth quarter. The team had chemistry at the time and it showed in their play.
"We had a good start to the fourth quarter and we had a good lead. We were playing good defense and you can't mess that chemistry up. Coach made a good decision. They really won the game for us. It was a big effort"
He also went out of his way to praise Westbrook for his efforts. Throughout the playoffs, Westbrook has been criticized for his inconsistent, and sometimes selfish, play, leading some to wonder whether his benching was an attempt by Brooks to send a message.
"I don't think he struggled tonight. We went with a different lineup in the fourth," Durant said, referring to Westbrook. "It was just the way the game was going. Eric had our group going. We were playing in sync. Russell understands that. He's the perfect teammate. For a leader, that's what you like to see on the bench."
In the end, all that mattered was the win. Oklahoma City evened the series at one and stole a win in Dallas. If Westbrook was unhappy, it didn't show in his postgame comments.
"Not when we’re winning. I’m good," Westbrook said when asked if the move bothered him. "I know you all want to ask the same question and I'm going to give you all the same answer: We were winning."
Only time will tell if Westbrook's fourth quarter benching was a big deal, but it's a storyline that will likely be analyzed until the Thunder take the floor again on Saturday in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. On Thursday night, the parties involved were saying the right things, but it's anyone's guess what the long-term affect the benching had on Westbrook may be, if anything. In the short-term, though, Brooks' gamble paid off and the Thunder benefited from his confidence in the bench en route to a Game 2 win.