DALLAS – Russell Westbrook(notes) walked off the court, and Scottie Brooks was waiting with a few words. Westbrook barked back at his coach. For a moment, the Oklahoma City Thunder looked ready to crack. Already down one game to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, they'd given up another lead near the end of the third quarter. Westbrook took his seat on the bench, barked some more, and weren't these young Thunder finally showing their immaturity?
"Just sitting there, waiting to get my name called," Westbrook would later say.
He's still waiting. Brooks never went back to Westbrook, and this says something about how much not only the Thunder, but also their coach, have grown. They beat the Mavericks 106-100 with Brooks surrounding Kevin Durant(notes) with four reserves, with their All-Star point guard sitting. They flew home with a split in these West finals, leaving town with a new reason to believe in themselves and the man guiding them.
Scottie Brooks doesn't offer much in the way of sound bites or sideline histrionics, but this is also true: After Thursday, no one's questioning the size of his Spaldings.
The Thunder won because Brooks had the courage to stick with what was working. More than anything, he had the courage to let his backup point guard, Eric Maynor(notes), close the game instead of his All-Star.
Brooks said his decision had more to do with Maynor than Westbrook, and there's truth in that. Teaching points are made in the regular season – not Game 2 of the conference finals.
Intentional or not, Brooks delivered a lesson to these young Thunder: Production matters more than status. Brooks trusts his guys, and he's going with whoever will help him win. For a young coach, these are the kind of moments that win territory in the locker room.
For nearly the entire fourth quarter, the only OKC starter on the floor was Durant. James Harden(notes) scored 23 points on just nine shots. Nick Collison(notes) helped body Nowitzki and anchor OKC's defense. Daequan Cook(notes) also hit some big shots. But even Brooks admitted only "very rarely" has he sat Westbrook down the stretch in favor of Maynor.
"I didn't want to mess with the rhythm," Brooks said.
There's another coach about five hours south down Interstate 35 who adheres to the same philosophy. Gregg Popovich has managed the San Antonio Spurs for years this way. You go with whoever's going good. When Tony Parker(notes) was ineffective in the Spurs' run to the 2003 title, Popovich frequently used Speedy Claxton(notes) to close games.
Brooks' situation differs in a couple of ways: Popovich had already won one championship by 2003; and, unlike Westbrook, Parker had yet to become an All-Star.
Westbrook made his first All-Star team in February. He's the Thunder's second-best player, one who sometimes plays as if he's the first. This can be good and bad, and the Thunder have experienced both in these playoffs. Westbrook has electrified on some nights and shown questionable decision making on others. Even worse: His relationship with Durant has been questioned since the two were seen arguing during a first-round game.
Durant and Westbrook have denied any issues, and the Thunder have insisted the bond between their two All-Stars isn't broken. "They play video games together," is the popular rebuttal from team officials. That's nice … if Durant and Westbrook were running an arcade. They aren't. They're two 22-year-olds trying to lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals way ahead of their time, and it's clear there has been some on-court tension during these playoffs.
It happens. Brooks has kept it in perspective, along with keeping his young team focused. He has never wavered in his public support of Westbrook, probably because he recognizes the obvious: Westbrook wasn't a point guard when he came into this league, and he's already come so far in just three seasons. Brooks also knows the Thunder need Westbrook's aggressiveness.
That doesn't mean there haven't been growing pains. Thursday brought some more. Westbrook had played better than his 3-for-15 performance in Game 1, but dribbled into a turnover near the end of the third quarter when he should have passed. He compounded the mistake by hacking Jason Kidd(notes) and giving the Mavs two free throws.
Brooks and Westbrook appeared to have a terse exchange during the ensuing timeout. Westbrook continued to stew on the bench for a few minutes until assistant coach Mo Cheeks came over to calm him. Asked afterward, Westbrook said he was frustrated only with his own play.
Was he upset about sitting the entire fourth quarter?
"Not when we're winning."
Westbrook cheered on his teammates and appeared in better spirits afterward. Perkins reminded him that different games require different heroes. How Westbrook reacts to his benching will go a long way in determining whether the Thunder have a legitimate chance to reach the Finals. They won one game with him watching. They won't win the series that way.
Brooks knows as much, which is why he said his decision to keep Maynor on the floor was based on what Maynor was doing, not what Westbrook didn't do. It's the same reason he continued to play small with Cook instead of going back to Perkins. These are the types of bold decisions that can win and lose playoff games, but rarely has Brooks been so daring.
"Brooks' idea of a radical move," one Oklahoma City columnist wrote before the Thunder's Game 7 win over Memphis, "is having his assistant coaches swap seats at halftime."
As a player, Brooks was a tough, hard-nosed point guard who became a favorite of Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich. His competitiveness hasn't dimmed over the years, but his coaching style is understated. He doesn't yell to yell. That even-keel approach appealed to the Thunder when he replaced P.J. Carlesimo during the 2008-09 season.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti has built this roster deliberately, and Brooks bought into the franchise's vision. He valued defense. He understood there could be no skipping steps with a team this young. Teaching and development were essential. This wouldn't be about him, even if, on this night, it truly was.
Westbrook sat and sat some more. Brooks never did call his name. He looked onto the floor and liked what he saw. He believed in his guys, he'd say afterward.
More than ever, he also gave them a reason to believe in him.