Posted by Matt Moore
When Russell Westbrook was benched for the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, we got two very predictable reactions. One side overreacted to the benching, expounding how Westbrook was livid at being taken of the floor, feeding into the idea that Westbrook cares more about himself than about the team. This of course was nonsense, since Westbrook was cheering for teammates during their strong close of the game. The other side overreacted to the overreaction, saying how this was fine and not a story and how Westbrook was hunky dorey with being an All-Star sat for the final frame of a playoff game when he had played exceptionally well for three quarters. This of course was also nonsense, as we know enough of Westbrook's personality and fire to be able to confirm reports that he was upset on the bench. It doesn't take a genius to figure out Russell Westbrook probably had some issues with watching Eric Maynor finish out the Mavericks, particularly during a late possession where he held the ball too long, then lost his dribble and turned it over. This isn't the end of the Thunder's world, even on a day the Rapture is allegedly coming, it's just a chemistry blip but one that we can expect.
The circumstances surrounding Westbrook's outburst on the bench come to us courtesy of ESPN this morning:
In the closing minute of the third quarter of Oklahoma City's 106-100 victory against Dallas, Westbrook made a play call that his teammates failed to run properly. When the play broke down, Westbrook made a one-on-one move that resulted in a turnover.via Source: Russell Westbrook 'benching' stemmed from botched play - ESPN.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks promptly took Westbrook, who had four turnovers, out of the game. Brooks slapped the All-Star point guard on his backside as he walked by.
Westbrook turned around and glared at the court. Then, when Brooks walked toward him and made a comment, Westbrook yelled, "I'm trying to run the [expletive] play, man."
Westbrook continued yelling on the bench for roughly a minute -- saying, "Tell them to run the [expletive] play," according to the source -- prompting assistant coach Maurice Cheeks to console him as play continued.
"I'm trying to run the [expletive] play, man" should be a T-shirt for Westbrook's fans the world over. Westbrook being benched following this can of course be interpreted multiple ways. On the one hand, keeping your fiery young guard off the floor to make sure he doesn't do anything foolhardy (as he's shown a tendency to do, specifically with driving into situations with a high probability of a charge) is a safe and responsible move, even if it's gutsy in its simplistic "benching a star" manner. But there's something else that feeds into a culture within the Thunder which sets up the very real possibility that Westbrook will not be part of the Thunder's long-term plans. Because there is a very clear double-standard set for Oklahoma City's All-Stars, right or wrong, and it's unlikely that that balance will be able to sustain itself over the long term.
Kevin Durant is a cool customer. Yes, he yells after the occassional vicious dunk, and yes, he's hyper-competitive. But Durant's manner on the court is most often reserved. Durant's humble in interviews, and talks repeatedly about consistency. That's his goal. Not to take over the biggest moments but to be able to do the spectacular things he can over and over again. He's still young, still learning, so that consistency escapes him at time, even as he repeated as scoring champion. Compare this to Westbrook, and you have the case of one man striving to take the world by storm and another letting the world come to him, on his terms but not under force of his might.
It is Durant's path that Scott Brooks trusts more.
Durant would not have been benched for the final frame of a playoff game under any circumstances, barring amputation or the bubonic plague. He would be given the trust and faith of the coaching staff, right up until the final possessions, despite the fact that Durant rarely is able to create adequate separation for himself off or on ball which leads to the reputation Brooks has of drawing up final possessions on an Etch-A-Sketch blindfolded. For all the talk about "Where is Kevin Durant, why are they not getting him the ball?" in the series against Memphis, in truth it was Durant's inability to detach himself from the Grizzlies' defense that led to Russell Westbrook's hero mode being activated. But the reality is that Durant's the better player. That's what it comes down to. Durant is the better player, despite Westbrook's brilliant speed, versatility, and lethal aggressiveness. Durant is simply able to hit incredible shots and make stellar plays more frequently because he's just slightly better, even if his attitude, savvy, and perceived (not in actuality) determination don't match Westbrook's. That's why people constantly balk at anyone but him getting the ball to close out a ballgame, and that's why Brooks would never bench him in the fourth quarter like he did Westbrook, even if Durant showed outward frustration at teammates. That's the pecking order.
That's also why eventually, there's going to be trouble in Thunderdise. (See, it's like paradise only with Thunder. Smells like barbecue and big oil money.) From everything we know of Russell Westbrook, his confidence, his ability, his volcano-like demeanor on the floor, does this give you the impression that he's going to be okay with a coach who sets one standard for an All-Star and another for him, also an All-Star? Forget this isolated situation, this was a bold move by Brooks in a key game they won. This is nothing. It's just an example. Just look at how the more criticism Westbrook receives, the more he seems to attack, the more he seems to want to prove to everyone "I didn't become an All-Star by just passing to Kevin Durant." Westbrook knows that on a team without Kevin Durant, he's looked at as an off-brand Derrick Rose, very close in production and style, if not the same brand quality. This isn't to say the two players are equal. It's simply to illustrate that if Westbrook was carrying a team on his back without as much talent as he's currently surrounded by, he'd be getting more respect, more adulation, even if the wins weren't coming through.
Think about that. It's the rare scenario where Russell Westbrook would be better off personally if he were on a losing team. This isn't what Westbrook wants, obviously. He has a great chemistry with the guys in Oklahoma City, is close with them personally, particularly Durant. This isn't about an outsider getting too big for his britches, this is just about a professional athlete eventually wanting the respect he has rightfully earned. No, he's not Kevin Durant. He's not Derek Fisher or Mario Chalmers or Mike Conley or Eric Maynor, either. He's an All-Star at a young age, and if you're too wrapped up with seeing his ever-eagerness and determination to win cause admittedly painful turnovers as part of the learning process to also see how Westbrook may be the single most lethal point guard attacking the rim in the league, including Derrick Rose (again, better player, comparison is there), how he's worked to add a reliable mid-range game (a large reason why the Thunder won Game 2), you've lost sight of how big a part Westbrook has played in this endlessly youthful Thunder team making the Western Conference Finals, knocking on the gates of NBA heaven.
Considering those circumstances, can you blame Westbrook for being a little upset? But he wasn't. He cheered for his teammates, said all the right things in the media, has ducked the controversy as much as he can. But this won't hold. Westbrook's next contract won't just be about money and stability, it'll be about role, and how he fits in with whatever team he winds up with. The Thunder have been great so far of recognizing the ability in Westbrook and feeding it. But it also appears there's a limit to how high they want Westbrook to reach into the cupboards, that there are certain cookie jars meant only for the franchise player, Durant. Either Westbrook will come to accept his status as second-fiddle, not an equal partner, but a key component in the championship runs of the Thunder, the Thunder will come to the conclusion that Westbrook deserves as equally long a leash as Durant, even if his mistakes are more pronounced, or Westbrook will tire of the Robin mask and decide to assert his control over his own career's destiny.
The story of Game 2 and going forward wasn't about benching Russell Westrook. It was about not benching Kevin Durant. And however this works out in the end, it's part of the story of the ever-evolving, ever-maturing chemistry of the Oklahoma City Thunder.