Thunder-Mavs: Russell Westbrook Gets Benched, And OKC Gets Better

DALLAS, TX - MAY 19: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on in the first half while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game Two of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 19, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant and James Harden dominated for the OKC Thunder in their Game 2 win over the Dallas Mavericks, and it happened with Russell Westbrook on the bench. Coincidence? Maybe not.

Dirk Nowitzki proved he's human on Thursday night, and the Oklahoma City Thunder capitalized. Kevin Durant scored 24 points, James Harden added 23 of his own, and just like that, the Western Conference Finals are tied. And it all happened with Russell Westbrook on the bench.

That last part may overshadow the discussion surrounding the Thunder's win on Friday, and it should. For me, it was the most satisfying part of Thursday's game. Not because I hate Westbrook, but because I sorta love the Thunder at this point and we've seen this coming for a month now.

Westbrook's been battling demons the entire playoffs, and Thursday was the first time we've seen Scotty Brooks take a stand. He finally hit the tipping point. Late in the third quarter, with Jason Kidd guarding Kevin Durant, Westbrook couldn't, or wouldn't, get him the ball. First he missed a jump shot, then he turned it over, and Brooks had seen enough.

He pulled Westbrook from the game, and told him to "pass the ball." And Westbrook, for his role in all this, was pissed. ESPN's cameras tracked him to the sideline, and for a solid 30 seconds we saw him scowling and cursing until finally Mo Cheeks walked over and told him to calm down. That was the end of his night.

Westbrook spent the entire fourth quarter cheering his teammates from the bench. Eric Maynor was playing well, Oklahoma City was hitting on offense, and Brooks didn't want to ruin his team's rhythm. "It had nothing to do with Russell," Brooks said. Plenty of NBA writers have said that should be the end of the story. Even Thunder beat writer Royce Young, who wrote, "There is going to be a story made about this situation, which is probably unfair. But it fits the evolving Russell Westbrook story."

Again, "It had nothing to do with Russell." ...But it sort of did, right?


Complete Coverage of Thunder vs. Mavericks Game 2

Sure, everyone said the right things afterward. First it was Kevin Durant. "I don't think [Russell] struggled tonight," he said at his press conference. "We went with a different lineup in the fourth."

Then it was Westbrook himself, explaining that he wasn't upset about sitting while his teammates pulled away in the fourth quarter. "I know you all want to ask the same question and I'm going to give you all the same answer," he said. "We were winning."

But here's the thing. They weren't winning. Or, the game wasn't won. It's normal to rest superstars at the start of the fourth quarter, so Brooks pulling Westbrook wasn't that big of a deal, initially. But the most you rest a guy like Westbrook is usually a couple of minutes in the fourth quarter. So when Oklahoma City took a full timeout with 8:45 to go, you'd had to think Westbrook was coming back. But then, nothing.

They were clinging to 86-85 lead at that point. They were winning, but it's not like Eric Maynor had opened the flood gates on a blowout. With six minutes left, it was still a three-point game, and... Still no Westbrook. On Twitter last night, it seemed like everyone wanted to pretend this was just a random decision by Brooks. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along...

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It just makes no sense. Maybe it's because so many people love the Thunder for their youth and innocence, we don't want to think of ego management becoming an issue with them. But just because OKC is a lot of fun doesn't mean they're immune to this stuff. People talk about manufacturing stories, but the idea that everyone on this team loves each other is just as fake.

Oklahoma City eventually pulled away over the final five minutes, but that was after OKC's All-Star point guard should've come back into a close game that was still a complete toss-up with six minutes left. It's not some big coincidence that he didn't.

This was a big moment. It took guts we weren't sure Scotty Brooks had. Earlier this week, in my preview of this series, I wrote, "Brooks has played the diplomat more than dictator in OKC, and the Thunder's offense has a nasty habit of devolving into one-on-one chaos in crunch time. ... If Russell Westbrook goes off the grid for at least two games in this series, that probably hands the Mavericks two wins, and forces the Thunder to win four out of the other five. Do you trust Scott Brooks to keep that from happening?" Thursday night, Brooks wasn't willing to risk it.

The Thunder may be a young team, but they're on the doorstep of the NBA Finals. Westbrook may be a young player with more talent than anyone on the floor besides Dirk and KD, but he's also the guy that's proven most successful at stopping the Thunder this postseason.

He'd been playing great all night before getting benched on Thursday, but that's not the point. After his little freakout on the bench in the third quarter, Brooks wasn't willing to trust him in the fourth. That the Thunder won anyway says a lot about this team, and Westbrook's future.

He's the guy that can engineer a gawdawful possession and then save it at the end by making some insanely athletic play. The ultimate "no-no-no-YES" player. But when he's playing next to Kevin Durant, the ultimate "YES" player, that guy's a little bit out of place.

As someone that's been rooting for the Thunder all year long, it's been painful to watch. At times, Russell Westbrook looks like a point guard who won the lottery but would rather take his chances doubling down at a blackjack table. Why make things complicated? Just give it to KD. And even as this gets more and more obvious, it hasn't gotten any better.

Until last night, when Scotty Brooks took matters into his own hands. Even if he wasn't intentionally sending a message, a day later, the writing's on the wall. It's been on the wall all playoffs long, but Scotty Brooks is done ignoring the elephant in the room.

Russell Westbrook's young and full of potential, but Brooks is done giving him the benefit of the doubt and sticking with him for the sake of loyalty and investing in the future. Thursday night, Brooks was willing to risk messing with Westbrook's psyche, because he wasn't willing to gamble on which Westbrook would show up in the fourth. The stakes are too high. 

For OKC, the future is now. Westbrook's a great player and he can be a part of all this if he's someone Brooks can count on in crunch time. Game 2 can be the beginning of the end for Westbrook in OKC, or maybe it'll be a turning point in his career. It can be the beginning of something better. If not? This year and beyond, the Thunder might just be more fun without him.

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