DALLAS – Russell Westbrook watched the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Game 2 win over the Dallas Mavericks like most of the rest of the 21,000-plus people packed into American Airlines Center Wednesday night.
He watched it from a distance, closer than most but certainly farther away than he’s used to.
The Thunder All-Star and second-team All-NBA pick didn’t play a second in the fourth quarter of what has to be his team’s biggest game of the season yet. Eric Maynor replaced him for the entire fourth quarter and played a critical role in the Thunder holding off the Mavericks for the 106-100 win that evened the series at 1-1.
It was a gutsy move by Thunder coach Scott Brooks, sitting one of his top two players during the most crucial stretch of the season. Had it backfired … but it didn’t. And Westbrook didn’t shy away from addressing it afterwards, doing his best to defuse any potential controversy by praising Maynor and making it clear that his first objective was leaving the building with a win.
“As long as we’re winning I’m good,” Westbrook said. “We were winning. I know you guys all want to ask the same question and I’m going to give you all the same answer. We were winning.”
Maynor only scored four of his 13 points in the fourth quarter but helped the Thunder control the pace down the stretch and also played well defensively. Westbrook struggled with his emotions, getting angry with himself for mistakes and losing focus at times as a result.
That made the decision easy for Brooks.
“I had that decision for the last six minutes or so,” Brooks said. “But I thought the game was being played — we were increasing the lead. We were making shots. I didn’t want to mess with the rhythm. I usually will sub (Westbrook) in. Very rarely have I ever done that since Russell has been here. But it was a decision really — Eric was playing well.
“It had nothing to do with Russell. Eric was playing good basketball, solid basketball for us, and we were increasing the lead. The temptation was there when they cut it to six and when they trapped and we had to call a timeout, but I believe in all of our guys. Some guys get more minutes than others, but the minutes that they do, they have to play hard and they do. And I believe in what they do out there.”
The Thunder believe in their coach and the decision he made.
“I’m not really out there thinking about it,” Maynor said of getting replaced at crunch time. “When I get called I’m going to go out there and play and whenever he takes me out I’m going to go to the bench and cheer for my teammates. Tonight I did my job.”
Indeed. And the Thunder’s other superstar certainly had no problem with the coach’s decision.
“I think it was just the way game was going,” Kevin Durant said. “Eric had our whole group going and had the five guys on the floor all in sync and playing as one. We had a good lead and with three or four minutes to go you can’t take those guys out. Russell understands that. He’s a perfect teammate. He was over there cheering everybody on, and from your leader, that’s what you’d like to see if he was on the bench.”
Rather than wringing his hands over his own performance (18 points on 7-for-15 shooting, four assists, four turnovers and three rebounds in 28 minutes), Westbrook again talked about the importance of the win.
“This is big,” he said “We got a win on the road in the Western Conference finals. It’s very important and I think as a team we did a good job of staying together.”
When asked to assess his own performance through three quarters, Westbrook refused to bite. “It was fine,” he said. “I’m not really worried about what I’m doing. I’m just trying to guard and win. That’s what our main objective is and that’s what it’s all about.”