Is the Russell Westbrook benching a big deal?

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (R) goes to the basket past Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (L) in the first half during Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Final basketball playoff in Dallas, Texas May 17, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Sharp (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Last night, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks took Westbrook out of the game with 0:28 remaining in the third quarter. He had just turned the ball over and committed a foul, giving the Mavs two free throws. Brooks exchanged words with Westbrook as he came to the bench, and Westbrook even stopped and turned to say something extra to his coach. For the next couple of minutes, he could be seen talking to no one in particular on the bench and he looked none too happy about taking a seat.

Brooks stuck with Eric Maynor for the entire fourth quarter and the Thunder went on to win 106-100. In the final period, Maynor went 2-for-3 from the field (four points), with one assist and one rebound. He did contribute to one turnover, a shot clock violation, but otherwise took care of the ball and got OKC into its offense. It wasn’t so much about Maynor’s numbers as it was about how the unit (Maynor-Daequan Cook-James Harden-Kevin Durant-Nick Collison) was clicking.

Brooks has finished games with Maynor in the past, but it’s rare, and I don’t remember it happening in the playoffs. It’s not uncommon for coaches to go with a bench player over a starter if the bench player has it going, but it’s not common for a coach to bench an All-Star for the entire fourth quarter of a playoff game.

But that’s where Westbrook’s game is at this point. He has been up-and-down, especially in crunch time. Brooks never knows what he’s going to get from his “point guard.” (I put that in quotes because Westbrook really isn’t a point guard, he’s just the de facto point guard for the Thunder.) I’ve railed on his game throughout the postseason. The Thunder aren’t still playing because of him — they’re still playing despite him. For every one of his sublime games, like his 14-assist triple-double against the Grizzlies in Game 7, he has two or three clunkers where he turns the ball over repeatedly and jacks up sketchy shots in the clutch.

For his part, he did congratulate his teammates during the fourth quarter and seemed relatively involved in the game. From what I could tell, he was up and cheering and wasn’t sitting on the bench sulking about his predicament. That’s important, because Thursday’s benching is only a big deal if Westbrook makes it a big deal. If he becomes (more) moody or if he lets it impact his relationship with his head coach, then it will rear it’s ugly head in the future when the chips are down.

I didn’t see a lot of Westbrook in his rookie season, but the punditry has been saying that h has “come a long way” in becoming a point guard. If that’s the case, I shudder to think about his decision-making in his rookie season. His assist-to-turnover ratio was dreadful (1.61) in his first year, got a lot better in his second season (2.42), then dipped in his third season (2.10). In the playoffs, his A/TO ratio is 1.48 — so tell me, how far has he really come?

I may be dead wrong, but I don’t think the Thunder can win a title this year with Westbrook at the point.

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