(Update1: quotes added from Scott Brooks and Daily Thunder)
Let's get out ahead of this one early.
Three minutes through the 3rd quarter in the Thunder's win over the Grizzlies, the large OKC lead was beginning to diminish. The Thunder offense was tightening up a bit, beads of sweat were likely forming on Scott Brooks' forehead, and when things get tight, Russell Westbrook gets a little intense.
As you can see, Westbrook was working to establish himself in the post against Jerryd Bayless, which was working pretty well for Westbrook on the night. Westbrook had been working on the baseline pivot most of the game, hitting some nifty bank-shots in the process. This time however, it appeared as if he wanted to fake baseline and then curl into the lane. However, Thabo Sefolosha, who had set up weak-side, decided to cut through the lane, bringing his own man Mike Conley with him. When Westbrook went to pivot back, Conley was in perfect position to cut off the lane and Westbrook was called for the 5-second violation.
Yes, as Steve Kerr pointed out in the clip above, that was the classic Mark Jackson violation, where a man who is below the foul line with his back to the basket...let's just go to the rule book:
Section XVI-Five-Second Back-to-the-Basket Violation
An offensive player in his frontcourt below the free throw line extended shall not be permitted to dribble with his back or side to the basket for more than five seconds.
The count ends when (1) the player picks up the ball, (2) dribbles above the free throw line extended or (3) a defensive player deflects the ball away.
The referee was pretty quick to jump on that violation, as Westbrook had started his back-down with about 15 seconds and the ref stopped the play as soon as the clock ticked down to 9. It was a fair call and it seemed as if Westbrook knew exactly what had happened because he started barking at Sefolosha for presumably cutting off his path to the rim.
This is the sort of disagreement we see every game amongst just about every type of player. For better or worse though, this is Westbrook, and when it's Westbrook, you never know if he is going to carry one bad play into the next one. When it does, this is the type of thing that Westbrook's critics feast upon. Ben Golliver writes:
[Westbrook] appeared to carry on the conversation with the Thunder’s bench at the beginning of the ensuing defensive possession before badly missing a wild runner on Oklahoma City’s next offensive possession and, later, allowing Bayless to leak out behind him for a dunk after a Kevin Durant turnover. At that point, Thunder coach Scott Brooks called timeout and Westbrook was removed from the game, well before his usual rotation.
Westbrook's unraveling demeanor led to his retreat to the locker room to cool down:
Scott Brooks described it thus:
“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.”
When Westbrook returned to the floor, he did not immediately re-enter but instead Brooks waited until the 4th to insert his PG, and from that point on, Westbrook was mentally fine and ready to finish off the Grizzlies. Daily Thunder's Royce Young writes:
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.
This is what Kevin Durant had to say, and will likely be repeated to some degree by Brooks and Westbrook when they are asked about it:
“Throughout a game you’re going to have some ups and downs,” Durant said on TNT. “Russ is so emotional he wants to win so bad, he wants to give it all for our team. It’s just a bump in the road, he has to continue being himself, we’ll be fine.”
While this episode was defused without greater ramification, we can already sense the sharks will circle, and they will have a point to a certain extent. Westbrook probably did the right thing in leaving the floor so he could cool down (he was back on the floor a few minutes later). However, in a game where the Thunder does not have a double-digit lead? Suddenly his self-imposed detention could carry greater implications for the game's outcome.
Needless to say, this little episode is going to get the front and center commentary from the usual suspects.
What do you think?