Despite beating the previously incandescent Dallas Mavericks to tie the Western Conference Semifinals at one game apiece and snatch home court advantage.
Despite offering an all-around team effort that proved they possess the depth and flexibility to compete with anyone.
Despite being famous for their buoyant youth and rather collegial camaraderie, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in crisis mode due to Russell Westbrook’s Game 2 tirade and subsequent benching—at least if you believe national headlines.
In case you missed it, Westbrook was pulled from the game near the end of the third quarter after a blown offensive possession that resulted in the 22-year-old point guard’s fourth turnover.
After exchanging heated words with coach Scott Brooks on the sideline, Westbrook became a spectator, watching the entire final quarter from the bench, as backup Eric Maynor finished the 106-100 victory. And although he eventually appeared to cheer on his teammates as they closed out the game, he was visibly frustrated and upset.
So, in typical news media fashion, the biggest win in franchise history has only engendered more questions than answers, more doubts than beliefs, more unease than elation.
But is this new development really cause for concern?
Yes, and no.
Should the Thunder be concerned about Russell Westbrook?
Coach-player confrontation is never good, especially not in the playoffs, where there is less room for error and more intense scrutiny. Trust is essential, both among the guys on the court and those patrolling the sidelines.
And when a team is notorious for its chemistry, like the Thunder, the possibility of friction magnifies potential anxiety.
Whether it’s Westbrook challenging one of Brooks’ play calls, or Brooks wondering if he should leave Westbrook in, even the slightest lack of faith—particularly in late-game situations—could compromise a game and, ultimately, a series.
Furthermore, this is just the latest episode in a trying postseason for Westbrook.
Although he was recently named second-team All-NBA; averaged a cool 21.9 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.6 rebounds during a 55-27 campaign; although he is clearly expected to endure ups and downs like any young point guard, he can’t escape criticism.
Heavy, heavy criticism.
And as unfortunate as it is to admit, much of it makes sense.
On almost a possession-by-possession basis, I catch myself thinking alternately, “Wow, there aren’t five people in the world who can do that” and “Did he really believe that was a good idea?”
The former should decisively outweigh the latter, which it did during the regular season. The playoffs have generally been a crapshoot (witness the triple-double in Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies, followed by a 3-15 shooting performance in Game 1 against the Mavs).
Still, I think there’s unnecessary hullabaloo over the Westbrook “tirade” and the Westbrook-Brooks “conflict.” Yes, it’s a compelling narrative for the media to exploit, but I think the commotion and concern is largely undeserved.
Westbrook is known to be an emotional guy, much more of a Kevin Garnett than a Tim Duncan. According to ESPN’s Chris Broussard, “[Westbrook’s] teammates and other members of the organization know he's volatile and prone to getting angry, but it typically dissipates quickly.”
Did you expect Westbrook not to care that he made a mistake and then got yanked? He’s a competitive player with supreme belief in his abilities; he would obviously want to be on the court during crunch time and redeem himself.
Getting upset when the going gets tough is acceptable, as long as you bounce back quickly and positively.
Westbrook did not sulk for the whole fourth quarter or act petulant during interviews. To reference Broussard again, “After the game, he said he had no problem with not playing because ‘we was winning.’”
Is that the complete, honest truth? Probably not. But I believe the overriding sentiment.
Westbrook’s focus on team, winning attitude, and unselfishness have been reported countless times, so it’s not as if we’re talking about a player with character issues.
All the greats have faced the questions and the criticism.
Dirk, after the Heat erased both a 2-0 series disadvantage and a 13-point, fourth quarter, Game 3 deficit to win the Finals in those same playoffs.
Hell, even the untouchable Michael Jordan was viewed as selfish early in his career.
Being a superstar athlete requires a short memory and thick skin, and we’re about to see what Westbrook is made of.
I fully expect him to use all the chatter as motivation and perform admirably in Game 3. He's a beast who hasn't received all the accolades for nothing.
And yet I fully expect us to find something else to critique after the game. That's just the way of the world.