Russell being Russell. That's really all it is.
With 8:53 left and his team up 25 in the third quarter of the Thunder's 106-89 win over Memphis on Thursday night, Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha exchanged heated words over a five-second backdown violation. Westbrook was upset Sefolosha made a cut to bring over a second defender. The two barked at each other and things went on.
Except they didn't. Westbrook came out of the game earlier than usual and appeared to lose his mind on the bench. While assistant Mo Cheeks attempted to reason with him, Westbrook slammed down his towel, flipped over some equipment and took off for the locker room.
When he returned minutes later, the Thunder's 25-point lead had been cut to 10 and Westbrook's tantrum was quickly becoming a major storyline.
Westbrook then returned to the game to begin the fourth quarter and, ironically, was a steadying force, helping OKC settle down and put away a depleted Grizzlies team. But still, that outburst was odd and concerning.
Westbrook dubbed it a "miscommunication" and the team and coach Scott Brooks completely downplayed it postgame, chalking it up to Westbrook just being emotional and frustrated with himself.
“There's no question he was frustrated with himself -- there's no question," Brooks said. "He had a turnover. He was frustrated with himself. Russell's an emotional guy. He plays hard. He plays every night. He plays for his team every night. … There's no question he was frustrated. I'm not trying to downplay that. He has to be able to control his frustrations, but that's part of it. It's nothing that's going to carry over until tomorrow, it's over with, we've moved on.”
Said Kevin Durant: "It was a disagreement. It's the game of basketball. You have so many different emotions on one team. You're going to have disagreements. It's not the first, it's not going to be the last. You've just got to know how to respond to each other, and I think we always do a great job of that. It's a disagreement. All teams have them, but luckily on our team we talk it out and don't let it simmer for a long time. Russell came back and responded really, really well for us in the fourth.”
Still, a player so hot at his teammate in a 25-point game that he actually leaves the court? That's anger management-level stuff there, isn't it?
But so much of this is perspective, and with Westbrook the record shows he has a history of these things and with him being a lightning rod for discussion, it's never going to go in his favor. Because some might see this as a guy not taking a 25-point game lightly, that he's trying to stay focused, that he's a perfectionist playing the game out. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron was lauded for snapping at his center during the national championship game for something similar. Tom Brady has done this sort of thing multiple times and no one questions his motive, passion or focus.
With Westbrook, it certainly feels different. It feels less like a leader trying to make his troops better and more like a little kid throwing a tantrum and completely losing his head.
“We lost a lot of veteran guys here," said Nick Collison postgame. “And the reason we've been able to keep up and go … is because what Russell, what Kevin, have done as leaders. And they've been great this year. They've grown up a lot. Their voice with the team and they've done it with their play, too. I didn't see what happened tonight, but I know those guys deserve a lot of credit before we go [crazy]. Russ in particular has grown up a lot. We're going to be fine.”
(I think the more frustrating thing with Westbrook was the way he handled it postgame. He was his normal short, brief self with his answers, but when Craig Sager of TNT asked him straightforward questions, you could see the anger boiling up all over again. I didn't see a guy who realized what he did was wrong, or at least silly. But then again, Westbrook's media circus is something that's bugged me in the past.)
The hot topic is if this is going to get in the way of the Thunder doing big things in the future. Considering this is the same Russell Westbrook as it's always been and they seem to have done pretty well recently, I doubt it. But it's still ugly and unfortunate, and something Westbrook probably should consider eliminating.
He plays with emotion and a major chip on his shoulder, though. It's the fuel that runs his engine. Asked after the game if he needs to control his emotions more, he said, "I control it like I did tonight, like a man." Because in Westbrook's mind, he probably thinks he did the right thing. He actually asked to come out after the Sefolosha incident -- Brooks didn't yank him. And with it boiling over, he figured like a second grader that's lost it that he needed a little timeout to regain his head in the hallway.
Almost in a weird way, Thursday night's outburst was progress for Westbrook. Because unlike other meltdowns, he didn't let his eruption impact his play. And if that's the case, then let it rip.