Brooks may have won the battle and lost the war
By John McMullen, NBA Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Give Scott Brooks credit, a very unconventional coaching decision helped his Oklahoma City Thunder even the Western Conference finals with Dallas on Thursday.
Well aware that his bench was having one of those nights, Brooks surrounded Kevin Durant with four reserves for most of the fourth quarter as the Thunder surged to a 106-100 win in north Texas.
Sitting Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins or Thabo Sefolosha isn't going to raise many eyebrows but ignoring emerging superstar Russell Westbrook for the entire final frame was as gusty as it gets for a coach in the NBA.
Westbrook, the Thunder's point guard who made the All-NBA Second Team this season, has been criticized at times in the playoffs for taking too many shots and being careless with the ball.
Despite scoring 18 points in the first three quarters on Thursday, the UCLA product was pulled after committing his fourth turnover and first foul in the final minute of the third quarter. He never returned as Brooks went with his reserves in crunch time.
Hindsight says it was a prudent decision, at least for one night, considering the Thunder's bench went off for 50 points in the contest, becoming the first NBA team to get at least 50 from its subs in a postseason road playoff win since 2006.
James Harden and Eric Maynor, who handled the backcourt duties for most of the fourth, were particularly effective offensively, scoring 36 points on 11-of-18 shooting with no turnovers.
"Coach made the right decisions down the stretch," Perkins said. "He rolled with guys when they were rolling."
With cameras watching his every move, Westbrook did not reveal any hostility after taking in the deciding quarter from the bench and said all the right things afterwards.
"[I'm not upset.] Not when we're winning. I'm good," Westbrook said. "I think as a team we did a good job of staying together."
Brooks said his decision to sit his All-Star had more to do with the steady play of Maynor than poor play from Westbrook.
"It had nothing to do with Russell. Eric was playing good basketball, solid basketball for us, and we were increasing the lead," the 2009-10 Coach of the Year said. "I've done it a few times during the year. It doesn't happen often. Russell is an incredible player. He's our starting point guard. But we weren't getting a lot of things done, and his time was to come out, and I stayed with Eric. I thought Eric was terrific handling the decisions on the court, and guys made big shots."
It was reminiscent of the 2003 San Antonio Spurs when Gregg Popovich often used Speedy Claxton to close games when Tony Parker struggled en route to the NBA title. Parker, however, was in his second season, didn't come to the NBA with Westbrook's pedigree and wasn't honored as an All-Star until 2006.
Publicly Brooks, a point guard himself, albeit a far less talented one in his playing days, has always been very complimentary of Westbrook, understanding that the Long Beach native was never a quarterback at the high school or college level and, West finals or not, is still in the midst of on-the-job training.
Thursday's hiccup was Westbrook's latest lesson and he handled it well on the bench, encouraging his teammates and putting the best face possible on what certainly had to be a tough time for him.
But the real test is how Westbrook reacts to his benching from here after the agents, friends and other assorted hangers-on get in his ear. You can bet words like embarrassing and disrespect will be thrown around.
How Westbrook handles that will go a long way in determining whether the Thunder have a real chance of reaching the NBA Finals. OKC may have won a game against Dallas without Westbrook in the waning moments but they can't win the series that way.
"If you tell me they leave Westbrook out in the whole fourth quarter and we don't get stops to win that would be tough," Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said.
There was a time when guys played for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back. Brooks has to know that era has come and gone, at least for the majority of professional athletes.
He rolled the dice here, however. The only question that remains is whether Brooks released them out of desperation or with the understanding that Westbrook has the maturity to persevere.
05/20 12:29:22 ET