The Thunder pulled out a gutsy, hard-fought win in Game 2, evening the series 1-1. But, more than likely, there’s going to be more talk about how the Thunder won the game than actually that they won the game.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks is the main reason the word “gutsy” is in that lede. Brooks made what I’m sure was an extremely difficult decision to go with his bench the entire fourth quarter. Russell Westbrook — who was very good the first three quarters — didn’t play a second in the final 12 minutes. It was backup point guard Eric Maynor’s team to run. In fact, only one starter played the bulk of the fourth, and it was Kevin Durant. (Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka played the closing minutes.)
I’ve already heard people saying Westbrook was pouting, furious or a lot of other negative things about his so-called “benching.” I’ve heard people speculating that Brooks wanted to teach him a lesson. That this was a way to humble him for all his previous late-game transgressions.
But the picture at the top says otherwise. That shows Westbrook up and cheering his teammates on during that big fourth quarter. That's not as fun to talk about, though.
But that’s not at all what this was about. This was about the five players on the floor and how well they were playing. This was about going with what was going to win you a game. Russell Westbrook isn’t stupid. (Or at least I don't think he is.) I’m sure he’s going to be a little upset. I’m sure he’s offended he didn’t come in. He's an All-Star and he didn't play a second in the fourth quarter of the biggest game of the season.
But his team won. That's what matters.
The perception was that Westbrook was taken out because he was struggling. Kevin Durant was asked about that post-game and the Thunder's star didn't see it that way.
“I don’t think he struggled tonight. We went with a different lineup in the fourth. But he didn’t struggle. When he was on the floor he played pretty well I think," Durant said. "Russell understands that. He’s a perfect teammate. He was over there cheering everybody on. As a leader, that’s what you want to see over there on the bench.”
There is going to be a story made about this situation, which is probably unfair. But it fits the evolving Russell Westbrook story. This feeds every narrative we’ve heard about over the past few weeks. I get that. I’m not dumb.
And you know what? If Westbrook actually is so offended that this becomes an issue, then I don’t think he fits the culture of the Thunder organization. The franchise is entirely about team, together and trusting in the next guy. I can’t think that Westbrook isn’t a part of that. Sam Presti is a master evaluator of not just talent, but character. And the one thing that blew Presti away the first time he evaluated Westbrook was his work ethic and charatcer. If Westbrook's truly offended by this development and is going to let it fester into an issue, then maybe he really isn't part of the long-term future.
The Thunder won this game without Westbrook on the floor in the biggest moments. Easy to see that. Westbrook didn’t turn the ball over, didn’t miss a shot, didn’t make a bad decision in the final 12 minutes. That’s true. But to think this is some kind of change the Thunder need to pursue full time or more often is borderline crazy. This team didn’t win 55 games and get to the Western Conference Finals with Russell Westbrook sitting on the bench. Brooks played the hot hand. He went with what was working. And besides, it’s not like Westbrook had nothing to do with OKC's win or something.
Honestly, the bigger story SHOULD be about Brooks making that call — which had to be incredibly hard — and sticking with it. Brooks knows it’s going to be a big story. He knows that there’s going to be damage control. He summed it up simply.
“I didn’t want to mess with the rhythm,” he said. “It had nothing to do with Russell. Eric was playing good basketball for us.” That tells the story, but that’s not the story people want to hear. It’s not the good story. It’s not what’s most interesting.
Again, the real story is how well the Thunder bench performed. James Harden was completely lights out (23 points on 6-9 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists). Eric Mayor, terrific (13 points, zero turnovers). Nick Collison was downright heroic on Dirk. Daequan Cook hit a couple massive 3s. Look at the Thunder bench: +5, +10, +18, +11, +14. The bench went 9-11 in the fourth quarter for 23 of the Thunder’s 29 points. In the second quarter, the bench scored on 10 consecutive possessions. They scored a total 50 points. Now that’s a story.
There’s going to be a bunch of chatter after this one and that’s the trade Scott Brooks made with his decision to stick with his bench. Maybe some of the Thunder's fabled chemistry is upset. It's a possibility. But the move paid off and the Thunder took a crucial Game 2. The question is that while it paid off in the short-term, could it have an effect on the long-term?
Brooks may have to do a bit of grief counseling tomorrow, but the same starting five will be out there for Game 3. Russell Westbrook will get his time. This was about going with the hot hand and your gut. And in this case, it completely worked. You can’t second guess that.