Sunday night, with the Thunder up six points midway through the third quarter and flirting with taking control of Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Scott Brooks decided to temper Westbrook’s hyper-aggressive playing style. He benched his All-Star point guard and quite possibly irreversibly changed the momentum of this best-of-seven series.
In the matchup of young head coaches being dragged through the Finals by trios of superstars, Scott Brooks blinked before Erik Spoelstra.
With Kevin Durant already on the OKC bench nursing his fourth foul (a Joey Crawford phantom call on a Dwyane Wade drive) and James Harden in the nasty throes of another miserable Finals shooting performance, Brooks sat Westbrook the last five minutes of the third quarter, foolishly tossing away the Thunder’s momentum.
“I took him out a couple of minutes early just to settle him down, and put him right back in,” Brooks misremembered. “He had a bad stretch. He turned it over, and he took a tough layup.”
He was typical Russell Westbrook, the occasionally out-of-control point guard the Thunder swore they weren’t going to change. Well, that all changed Sunday night when Brooks sent Westbrook to his room in front of a national television audience.
“That’s the coach’s decision,” Westbrook said. “You gotta live with it.”
The Thunder died with it inside AmericanAirlines Arena, losing 91-85 and falling behind the Heat 2-1 in the series.
It was a risky decision based on the hyper-aggressive bet that the Thunder could out-execute the Heat in the fourth quarter. Brooks flew to Miami convinced that if the Thunder kept the game respectable in the first half and within a bucket or two heading into the final 12 minutes, Durant would “out-close” LeBron James and Wade.
Brooks learned a tough lesson Sunday night. Every NBA Finals possession is valuable, the ones in the third quarter matter just as much as the ones late in the fourth. Shortly after Brooks benched Westbrook, Derek Fisher completed a four-point play — drained three and a free throw — to put the Thunder up 10 points. From there, the Thunder melted the final minutes of the third quarter. OKC’s offense — Durant and Westbrook — sat and the Thunder couldn’t score. Spoelstra left James and Wade on the court and the Heat finished the final 4 minutes, 33 seconds on a 15-3 run. Miami led by two at the end of the third.
Brooks had his one-possession game going into the fourth. He needed a four-possession game in his favor to win.
Oh, Miami was its usual shaky self in the fourth quarter. The Heat turned the ball over eight times and gave OKC multiple opportunities to steal Game 3. But Durant, perhaps frustrated by the foul trouble that is plaguing him throughout this series as he tries to defend James, was off his normal fourth-quarter game. Durant was 2 of 6 from the field and 0 for 2 from the line in the fourth. The Thunder turned the ball over five times. Fisher turned cold in the fourth, missing three of four shots.
OKC needed the hyper-aggressive Russell Westbrook to bail the team out in the fourth.
Brooks benched that Westbrook in the third quarter over a couple of bad possessions.
Absolutely crazy. Westbrook actually was playing a very good game on Sunday. He wasn’t out of control. Had Brooks sat Westbrook and “put him right back in,” there wouldn’t have been a problem. The Fisher four-point play and Miami’s bad fourth quarters in Games 1 and 2 fooled Brooks into believing he could get away with punishing Westbrook for five minutes.
You have to live and coach in the moment. Durant had to sit because of the four fouls. Harden is in the toilet. Fisher is 37. What he gives OKC is a bonus, not something the Thunder should rely on. Brooks has to win this series with Durant and Westbrook free to screw up. Brooks has to ride or die with Westbrook. Brooks has no choice.
He screwed up Sunday night. Will his mistake linger? Did he damage Westbrook’s psyche? Did Brooks add to Miami’s confidence?
What was obvious from Westbrook’s short, postgame answers to any question is that he’s frustrated and pissed. He didn’t agree with Brooks’ handling of the third quarter. What was also obvious in the post-game media session is that Durant is frustrated with the officiating that keeps limiting his court time.
Adversity in Game 4 could mentally break the Thunder. If James and Wade keep driving the lane and drawing fouls and knocking down free throws, Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder will start believing in the inevitability of LeBron’s coronation.
Yep, Scott Brooks’ awkward attempt to “change” Russell Westbrook might’ve changed the entire series. We’ll find out Tuesday.