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Saturday, May 21, 2011
Will star guard's bench time affect OKC?

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

DALLAS -- One of the last guys you expected to see on the bench in the fourth quarter of a game in the Western Conference finals was the first guy out of the showers in the visiting locker room.

There was Russell Westbrook, all scrubbed and impeccably dressed for the usual postgame interrogation, using his speed in these unforeseen circumstances to anticipate questions faster than the media pests buzzing around his stall could pose them.

"I know you guys all want to ask the same question, and I'm going to tell you all the same answer," Westbrook declared.

"We were winning."

They sure were. The Oklahoma City Thunder won a game Thursday night that they weren't supposed to win, riding Kevin Durant and the bench bunch around him in crunch time to a 106-100 victory over the hottest team in the basketball universe. The victorious Thunder dealt the Dallas Mavericks their first dose of defeat in 26 days, evened this series at 1-1 and headed home for Games 3 and 4 with the biggest W in the franchise's Oklahoma City history to cart onto the team plane.

In those circumstances, Westbrook insisted afterward, watching the whole fourth quarter from the bench while Eric Maynor ran the team was not a problem.

"Not when we're winning," Westbrook said. "I'm good. I'm just sitting there just waiting to get my name called."

The story, of course, has many more layers than that, because Westbrook isn't just anybody in the Thunder's universe. And because he didn't just willingly plop down on the bench to take it all in.

Westbrook's initial angry reaction to getting hooked undoubtedly will steal the proverbial between-games thunder from the boldest dice roll of Scotty Brooks' young coaching career. The Mavericks' J.J. Barea has to move over now -- because Oklahoma City's coach is the little big man in this series who just changed everything with his fearlessness -- but there's a flip side to Brooks' victorious gamble that he'll have to manage from here.

As smart as Brooks looks for rolling with his hot reserves down the stretch -- for all the justified props he'll get for having the guts to go away from his starting point guard and Kendrick Perkins for the entire fourth quarter and preventing OKC from slipping into a seemingly fatal 2-0 hole against the blazing Mavs -- Westbrook inspires nothing but curiosity now. Not for the first time in these playoffs, either.

How will he respond to the benching? Will we see Maynor over Westbrook in crunch time again in this series? Does anyone really believe Westbrook when he says he's "good" with spectating?

You'd struggle to believe that if you were closely watching the ragged end to the third quarter, when Westbrook sandwiched an off-target contested jumper and a turnover off a broken play around a failed defensive possession against Shawn Marion. The sequence unsurprisingly set Brooks off, resulting in a scolding that (A) drew visible anger from Westbrook by the time he reached his seat and (B) still had Westbrook smoldering when Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks tried to settle him down.

You'd likewise be more likely to dismiss the whole episode as the sort of heat-of-the-moment stuff that routinely gets overblown if we all hadn't just spent most of the previous round putting Westbrook's decision-making and shot selection under the nightly microscope. Brace for more of the same now as this series shifts to OKC, because Brooks was clearly unhappy with what he was seeing before Maynor had done anything to persuade his coach to let Durant and the subs ride.

"I've done it a few times during the year," Brooks said. "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.

"I had that decision [whether to bring Westbrook back] for the last six or so minutes, but I thought ... we were increasing the lead. We were making shots. I didn't want to mess with the rhythm. I usually will sub him in. Very rarely have I ever done that since Russell has been here.

"It had nothing to do with Russell. Eric was playing good basketball, solid basketball for us, and we were increasing the lead."

Yet you suspect that what happens next has everything to do with Russell and how he handles his latest postseason humbling. Westbrook's Game 2 numbers certainly look passable compared to his 3-for-15 struggles in Game 1 -- 18 points in 28 minutes on 7-for-15 shooting -- but the onus is on him to adapt to more of the pass-first mentality that Brooks is increasingly demanding. Unless you think that the Thunder can get away with an eight-point second half from Durant and nothing in the fourth from Westbrook more than once against the Mavs.

That it happened even once stunned the hosts, with Dirk Nowitzki admitting at the post-game podium: "If you tell me they would leave Westbrook out in the whole fourth quarter and we don't get stops to win, that would have been tough [to believe]." But the most telling talk at the mike came from Durant, who had nothing but backing for his coach's gumption to go with James Harden, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook and Maynor as KD's sidekicks for all but 50 combined seconds (logged by Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha) in the final period.

"You can't mess that chemistry up," Durant said of the Thunder's late-game lineup, "and that's where Coach made a good decision by doing that."

It's a call you never expected Brooks to be making just two games removed from a Westbrook triple-double in OKC's Game 7 win at home over Memphis, but here we are again.

Wondering whether Westbrook -- offensive rebounder extraordinaire -- can rise up from underneath that microscope with anywhere near the flair he bounced back with against the Grizzlies. Asking if the sight of Westbrook cheering for his teammates over the last three minutes means that the anger is already dribbling out of his system. Or in the extreme: Questioning whether Durant and Westbrook really fit for the long term ... as opposed to focusing on how quickly KD and his speedy All-NBA sidekick have made it to this big stage. Again.

"One thing about Russ is that he always bounces back," Perkins said. "Him not playing in the fourth quarter, I'm sure he'll use that as more of a motivation thing. It'll just be scary to see him come out after tonight."

Meaning scary good.