Here's the play, courtesy of Sebastian Pruiti over at the NBA Playbook, that allegedly motivated Scott Brooks to bench his starting point guard for the entire fourth quarter last night. It was, initially, a nerve-racking move to take in: you expect a young team to fold in on itself without its young, bullish boy wonder at the helm, and you expect the coach to make the swap back in before that can happen. Remarkably, though (and probably to Brooks' surprise), the Thunder's bench players — boy wonders all — scored 23 of the team's final 29 points against the veteran Mavericks as Westbrook watched from the sideline.
Westbrook would say after the game that he wasn't upset about his coach's decision because, well, "we was winning," which is a clever way of disguising the fact that that's probably exactly why he was upset. It can't feel good to get benched during one of the most important games of your young career; it has to feel a hell of a lot worse to watch your teammates win that game and appear that they don't need your help anyway.
In the spotlight of the playoffs, Russell Westbrook has been singled out and labeled a classic selfish one-man. It's said that he steals away potential plays and baskets from Kevin Durant — usually on late-game shots that the Thunder would be better off with Durant taking — and that when he drives, he's looking for his basket and not a teammate. He's also, according to Chris Broussard, considered the team's "little brother" and to have something of an anger issue. And it is interesting to see how his numbers have shifted in the postseason: his points and turnovers have gone up, his assists and field goal percentage have gone down.
But even with all that, Brooks couldn't have been "sending a message" to his starter in last night's move; there are times for using punishment as a teaching tool, and then there is Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Plus, as Pruiti points out in his analysis, Westbrook was trying to run a trusted Oklahoma City pindown play at the time (one that wouldn't end in his shot — see Pruiti's story for what the play should look like) and his teammates weren't executing it. It's more likely that Brooks pulled his point guard because he saw him getting frustrated with his teammates — a mistake that, as a team's leader, a point guard should never make — and then he saw that the bench could close it out.
More abstractly, I like Henry Abbott's reasoning for endorsing the decision: he wrote on TrueHoop today that he's glad that NBA coaching "looks unconventional sometimes." He's right. It's always a little bit startling when NBA broadcasts cut to team huddles, and you hear Doc Rivers or Gregg Popovich actually instructing his team on a set play or correcting a guy's mistake, or when a vet like Jason Kidd turns to Rick Carlisle for a play call. And then there's the strange wonder of seeing a premier player like Westbrook forcing smiles and cheers from the bench, itching to get in the game.