Sparks fly as the Thunder cruise over Memphis, 106-89

BOX SCORE

It was about to be an uneventful, taking-care-business night for the Thunder. They were bouncing back strong against a depleted Memphis team and doing it with quality conviction.

And then Russell Westbrook had to ruin it and go get mad at everyone.

What happened? Here’s what happened: With 8:53 left in the third quarter and the Thunder up by 25, Westbrook blew a gasket over a simple apparent miscommunication with Thabo Sefolosha. Westbrook was backing down Jerryd Bayless — who he’d been working in the post all night — but Thabo made a cut from the right wing over to where Westbrook was. The cut brought Thabo’s defender over and crowded the area. Westbrook was hit with a five-second backdown call and instead of just brushing it off, spiked the ball twice and immediately went in barking at Sefolosha.

Thabo barked back, Westbrook barked back again as Kevin Durant sort of tried to mediate the discussion, and that was about it. The next possession Westbrook recklessly went flying at the rim for a terrible shot, obviously still steamed. Scott Brooks subbed him out much earlier than usual, and Westbrook went to the bench as Mo Cheeks put on his therapist hat. That’s when the real fireworks started. As Cheeks tried to talk him down, Westbrook slammed his towel down, flipped over some equipment and actually left the court and walked up the tunnel. A fairly unbelievable move.

Here’s how Scott Brooks described the sequence:

“There was obviously a discussion on the court. One of the offensive plays we had some trouble with our spacing. Thabo cut over when he probably should’ve spotted up. It was a discussion and it was a timeout and I decided to take Russell out because we needed to calm down. And then Russell went in the back and it was nothing, he just needed to regroup. Came out in the fourth quarter like I normally would do and I put him back in. It wasn’t nothing that has not happened before.

“There’s no question he was frustrated with himself. There’s no question. He had a turnover. He was frustrated with himself,” Brooks said. “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.”

It’s easy to downplay the situation postgame, but it clearly was a bit of a scene. What was happening off the court became a big distraction for everyone, including the Thunder. Because as Westbrook boiled over on the bench, Memphis quietly cut that 25-point lead to 10 late in the third.

Then something different happened. Two years ago, Russell Westbrook would’ve checked back in the game and still struggled to find his head. He would’ve continued to run hot, letting that chip on his shoulder grow to a full-sized chunk. This time though, Westbrook re-entered to begin the fourth quarter and actually settled OKC down and helped spark a run to put Memphis away. No, for real. I saw it happen.

“We lost a lot of veteran guys here. Derek. We lost Nazr. We Royal,” said Nick Collison. “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. Russ in particular has grown up a lot. We’re going to be fine.”

Really, you could look at this Westbrook tantrum two ways: You could see it as a classic fit, a sign of his frustrating immaturity and overly emotional play, OR, you could see it as big time growth by the hot-headed 24-year-old. Because really, Brooks didn’t bench Westbrook at all. Immediately after the blowup with Thabo, Westbrook actually tugged on his jersey and said “get me” at Brooks. He wanted out. He knew he needed a little breather. And when he couldn’t settle himself, he decided to take a timeout in the hall.

And evidently, it worked. He checked back in and was terrific in slamming the door on Memphis. He hit a jumper, ran the offense and finished the game out strong. He finished with a line of 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists. We’ve seen these kind of outbursts from Westbrook before, so it’s not really surprising to anyone that’s watched him, but it’s never pretty and always a story. Because it’s Russell and that’s the way it works.

“I knew he was coming back, I knew he was coming back and was going to play in the fourth quarter,” Brooks said. “But I know we needed to take him out at that moment and you can make whatever you want to make out of it, but we knew he was coming back.”

It’s kind of funny, because I think if this were anyone else, we might see Westbrook’s outburst as a competitive guy trying to be a perfectionist. His team up 25 and he’s still barking and hollering for them to be better. I think of the national championship game with Alabama and Notre Dame where A.J. McCarron got into it with his center Barret Jones over a false start. Everyone praised that moment for two guys trying to play out the game and competing until the end. For whatever reason, Westbrook never gets that benefit of the doubt.

“It was a disagreement,” said Kevin Durant. “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.”

Westbrook shouldn’t have left the court. No doubt about that. But he wanted to cool his jets, wanted to get his mind right. When the fourth quarter started, everyone knew what happened next with him was going to be interesting and instead of more explosions, the game ended mostly like it began: uneventful.

NOTES:

  • You may be wondering, “But Royce, why aren’t there any quotes from Russ about this situation?” Here’s why: For some reason, Scott Brooks took an inordinately long amount of time coming out for his postgame press conference. And by the time it ended, Westbrook had conveniently showered, dressed and slipped out. He did get stopped by a very small handful of media, but it wasn’t the typical entire group.
  • His quotes were put down on a quotesheet collected by Thunder media interns. Here’s what was gathered: On what happened to get him so mad: “Nothing, just a little miscommunication.” He was then asked if he feels like he needs to control his temper more: “I control it like a man like I did tonight.” To which he was asked, “Put it behind you and win?” Westbrook: “If that’s what you say.”
  • What does that mean, “Control is like a man like I did tonight”? My guess is that Westbrook feels he did a good job of calming himself down. Which I kind of agree with.
  • You know what sucks about the Westbrook thing? It’s totally overshadowed an otherwise terrific game from the Thunder, most notably KD. And I know, I’m as guilty as anyone about it. But it really is the story from tonight’s game. Still, Durant was awesome going for 27 on 10-16 shooting along with seven boards and six assists.
  • Thabo completely dismissed and avoided every question about Westbrook tonight. Directly asked, “What happened on the play?” Thabo said, “Nothing really happened. I think we played a good game overall and that’s what matters.”
  • The Thunder’s first quarter was something else: 32 points, 12-15 shooting, eight turnovers. They started started 9-9, the best start from the field in OKC history. It was feast or famine though as the first 15 possessions ended either in a bucket or a turnover. Here’s how crazy it was: The Grizzlies had seven rebounds in the first quarter, but zero defensive.
  • That kid looking for a high five from Westbrook as he walks into the tunnel just kills me.
  • That trend continued throughout the game though. Memphis finished with 21 offensive boards.
  • The Thunder did great work on Zach Randolph, specifically Nick Collison. Randolph went for just nine points on 4-17 shooting, and started the game 0-10. He did finished with 19 boards, but when you miss as much as Memphis did, the opportunities are there.
  • Collison also had that spiffy dunk. All it  was missing was a cartwheel.
  • The Grizzlies had 34 points in the first half, but 33 in the third quarter.
  • Serge Ibaka had six blocks, but he was unbelievably soft on the boards tonight. One rebound? Unacceptable.
  • Back to Westbrook: I think the most disappointing thing about it was that Westbrook was trying scapegoat Thabo for his turnover. At least that’s what it seemed like. Thabo’s cut was poorly timed, but it’s no reason to explode.
  • Kevin Martin injured his side a bit, but said after the game it was just an elbow he caught. A little sore from it, but he played through it.
  • Interesting that Brooks decided to let Martin finish the game out and not play Jeremy Lamb any.
  • KD was hit with his eighth technical foul of the season tonight.
  • DeAndre Liggins got one too, for something with about a minute left. #DeAndreIsNotNice
  • Marc Gasol committed the worst foul in NBA history: He hit Perk on a jumpshot. Defensive reputation: ruined.
  • The halftime show tonight was a guy throwing frisbees to his dogs. It was cool, but the most fascinating thing about it was the guy’s hair. It was a buzzcut, but with long spiked bangs with highlighted tips.
  • Zach Randolph was riding Rodney Mott for a call in the second quarter and instead of hitting him with a tech, Mott just put his hand of his face as if to say, “Don’t talk to me.” Never seen that before.
  • You know I sometimes think about? The Thunder were rumored to be really interested in taking Jerryd Bayless in the 2008 draft, but instead went with Russell Westbrook. But I wonder what Bayless would look like right now if OKC had taken him instead of Westbrook. Would that have made a difference in his progression? He showed some serious flashes of offensive excellence tonight and it makes you think, in the right situation where he could’ve developed, what would’ve become of him?
  • Evidently Tony Allen uses the national anthem to get hyped. He spent the whole time running in place and jumping up and down.
  • There was a new intro video tonight. Total charges taken in it: three.

Next up: At Cleveland on Saturday.

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