MIAMI — When Russell Westbrook stalked off the court midway through the third quarter and arrived at the end of the bench, he punched the seat cushion he was about to sit on, an act that served as more than an expression of frustration.
It also served as confirmation that once again Westbrook is what’s killing the Thunder.
Just kidding — well, sort of.
Because for Westbrook, an enigmatic, talented point guard (at least according to some), often there is no action without an equal and opposite reaction.
If he is not offending the fashion police with his geek-chic stylings, he is offending the sensibilities of the hooperati with his hell hath no fury (or basketball IQ) approach to the game.
On Sunday night, when his team needed him most — after Kevin Durant went to the bench with four fouls midway through the third quarter — Westbrook offended the tastes of one of his greatest benefactors, coach Scott Brooks, who benched him for playing recklessly.
While many of the questions since have been put to Brooks about the wisdom of his move, which coincided with Oklahoma City relinquishing control of a game it would lose, it is hard not to notice a pattern here.
Whenever the Thunder lose, it seems that Westbrook is often at the center of criticism.
He is out of control. He doesn’t pass enough to Kevin Durant. He is not a point guard. And anything else that cuts to a question at the heart of his character as a basketball player.
Is he a winner?
Westbrook is capable of carrying his team, which he often does for stretches — and occasionally killing it — but he is most consistent in serving as a lightning rod.
In essence, he is the Thunder’s LeBron James.
“That’s what it feels like,” Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins said with a chuckle. “That’s what he feels like, too. I don’t understand when we do lose a game, OKC gets blamed, but he gets all the blame. Like nobody else gets blamed. Russ gets all the blame. When we win, I don’t really hear too many people praising Russ.”
Perkins said this on Saturday afternoon, before Westbrook was benched, before he returned to miss two 3-pointers (including one that would have tied the score) in the last 30 seconds and was part of a mix-up with Thabo Sefolosha that resulted in the game-clinching turnover.
Oh, and before he scored 19 points and added five rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, and sank a jumper to pull Oklahoma City within a point with 1:30 left, which turned out to be the Thunder’s final basket.
There were many more questions Monday about why Westbrook was yanked, rather than why James Harden was unable to carry the Thunder while its two stars were on the bench, and had a crucial turnover down the stretch. Harden has been a non-factor in this series — has his game been lost somewhere within that House of David beard? — but there is hardly outcry over his performance.
The Heat got away with having Shane Batter guard Kendrick Perkins for large stretches, but nobody — except Perkins — said the Thunder were doing a disservice by not punishing Miami for it. And Derek Fisher, the sage veteran, played like a rookie at times — committing a silly foul while James Jones shot a 3-pointer and taking (and missing) hasty shots himself.
Perkins on Monday gave an interesting explanation when I asked why Westbrook is so often criticized.
“His demeanor probably, how he carries himself on the court,” Perkins said. “He has this attitude that it’s me against the world, which is a good thing. That’s how he cares. KD has this humble attitude and you see him, he’s hugging his mama, he’s always giving thanks to God, and Russ is kind of the complete opposite about how he approaches the game.
“He’s a player that plays with a lot of emotions. He’s a wild card. He just wants to play. He’s going to play hard. We’ve all got flaws. We all just got to deal with each other.”
Indeed, Westbrook does play the game with a great deal of aggression, part swagger and part sneer. He is the Thunder player most likely to pound his chest after a dunk, and though he can be thoughtful, he does not often allow himself to be with the media. His answers are often brief and reveal little.
It is as if Westbrook needs to remind himself that he was overlooked by all Division I colleges until UCLA showed up at the last minute. And how UCLA coach Ben Howland was so reluctant to play him as a freshman.
When he was drafted fourth overall, after one season as a starter at UCLA, it was considered by some a reach. And when he quickly proved that notion wrong, there were always the questions of whether he ever could be a point guard, ones that persist after two seasons as an All-Star.
This, though, misses the point. With Harden, an excellent decision-maker and passer who is also arguably the Thunder’s best finisher at the rim, it is not necessary for the ball to be in Westbrook’s hands, particularly at the end of games.
Brooks, just as he was after he benched Westbrook down the stretch in the Thunder’s only win over Dallas in the Western Conference finals a year ago, was fully behind him after this benching.
“It’s never personal with me,” Brooks said. “There was no message. I just took him out. He had a bad stretch. Everybody knows how much I love Russell.”
That is no doubt worth some comfort to Westbrook, because if the Thunder don’t win this series, chances are that outside the Oklahoma City locker room that will not be the prevailing opinion.