Running away with a win against a Memphis team in disarray after trading away top scorer Rudy Gay, the Oklahoma City Thunder found a way to come unhinged, too.
An outburst aimed at his own team earned All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook a third-quarter benching and gave the Grizzlies a glimmer of hope before Oklahoma City closed out a 106-89 victory Thursday night.
Just when the Thunder seemed to be firmly in control, Westbrook started sniping with his teammates after a possession when he posted up along the left side of the lane and eventually got called for a turnover when Jerryd Bayless stuck with him on defense for 5 seconds.
Westbrook then spiked the ball twice while gesturing toward Thabo Sefolosha and Durant that they needed to get open. He then hollered toward coach Scott Brooks on the bench.
Memphis followed his outburst with 10 straight points to make it a game again, with Westbrook getting an early hook during the stretch and heading down the tunnel toward the locker room.
He sat out about 8 minutes before Brooks put him back in to start the fourth quarter.
Westbrook described it as ”just a little miscommunication.” Brooks said it was an offensive play that went awry. Sefolosha acted as though nothing happened.
The result was a mini-implosion by the defending Western Conference champions right in the public eye.
”It was a disagreement,” Durant said. ”This is the game of basketball. You have so many different emotions on one team. You’re going to have disagreements. It wasn’t the first. It’s not going to be the last.
”You’ve just got to know how to respond to each other. I think we always do a great job of that.”
When disputes arise, Durant said the Thunder know how to ”talk it out and don’t let it simmer for a long time.”
”I decided to take Russell out because we needed to calm down,” Brooks said. ”Russell went in the back. It was nothing. He just had to regroup. … It was nothing that has not happened before; not just with him, with all of our guys.”
Brooks finally put him back in the game to start the fourth, after Memphis had pulled to 77-67 in the final minute of the third quarter. Westbrook hit a pull-up jumper and set up Kevin Martin for a 3-pointer in transition on consecutive possessions to bump the lead back up to 86-69 with 9:32 remaining.
That all but ended the Grizzlies’ bid to come back from a 26-point deficit.
”The first half, we were a little flat, a little shell-shocked,” coach Lionel Hollins said. ”Everybody was trying to do too much. You had guys who just didn’t make any shots in the first half. But the second half, we played our game.”
Bayless started in Gay’s place and led Memphis with 23 points. Zach Randolph missed his first 10 shots and wound up with nine points and 19 rebounds.
The Grizzlies were playing short-handed while waiting for trade acquisitions Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis to arrive and pass physicals. They were already short on numbers after dealing away reserves Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby for Jon Leuer about a week earlier and with Quincy Pondexter out with a sprained ligament in his left knee.
That left just nine healthy players for Memphis, and Leuer didn’t get into the game until it was out of hand in the final 5 minutes.
”We couldn’t make no shots. … The double-team was packing in on the paint,” Randolph said.
”We’ve just got to open it up and I’ve got to hit shots,” he added. ”We’ve got to hit shots from the outside, open it up and let us play a little bit.”
Memphis had been one of only three visiting teams to win at the Chesapeake Energy Arena this season, but that was before the two trades aimed at avoiding the luxury tax.
From the start, the depleted Grizzlies were no match for the Thunder at full strength.
Returning home for the first time after a six-game road trip, Oklahoma City connected on its first nine shots to move ahead and then tacked onto the lead after the streak stopped. Martin’s 3-pointer from the left wing pushed the advantage into double digits for the first time at 27-16 with 2:41 left in the first quarter.
Nick Collison had a two-handed slam and Durant converted a three-point play after being fouled on a right-handed jam during a string of nine straight Oklahoma City points early in the second quarter, and the lead ballooned to 24 by halftime. Memphis shot just 26 percent while matching its season low with 34 first-half points while the Thunder made 61 percent of their shots and scored 58 points against what has been the league’s stingiest defense.
It wasn’t long after that that Westbrook had his blow-up.
”We’re an emotional group. Our guys are always playing with a competitive spirit. That’s what makes us a competitive team for the last three or four years,” Brooks said.
Westbrook defended the way he handled it.
”I’ll control it like a man,” he said. ”Like I did.”
NOTES: Gay was the Grizzlies’ franchise leader in games played (479), minutes (17,338) and steals. He was second in points (8,562). … Durant picked up his eighth technical foul of the season with 7:54 in the third quarter, after getting the ball stripped as he made a move to the basket. … Oklahoma City’s 9-for-9 start from the field was its best since relocating from Seattle in 2008 and the best in the league this season.