MIAMI — He knows what it's like to be that angry young man, getting yanked from the game for what? Trying to help? Trying to win a ballgame?
He was 23 and in his fourth NBA season, playing for a championship and occasionally still feeling angry, misunderstood and uncertain about what his coach needed from him.
You think Scott Brooks had a problem on his hands in Game 3? Imagine how Doc Rivers must have felt when a less mature, more emotional Kendrick Perkins didn't appreciate being benched.
“I was once a young guy that went to the end of the bench pouting the same way,” Perk said Monday, recalling his Boston Celtics days, “not knowing that what we're trying to accomplish is bigger than any one guy.”
It sure seemed the Thunder's coach tried to make that point to Russell Westbrook — age 23, in his fourth NBA season, playing for an NBA championship — during a stretch of the third quarter that helped decide Game 3.
One minute after foul trouble took Kevin Durant out of the game, Brooks made the call on Westbrook, leaving the All-Star point guard brooding at the end of the bench and the Thunder without its top two scorers.
On Monday, as the basketball viewing public debates that move and its impact on Oklahoma City's 91-85 loss, Brooks, Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins shrugged, almost in unison.
Said Perkins, “It's not like this is the first time it's happened with our team.”
He's right. The Thunder's fate is tied to that of its mercurial lead guard. And those who follow this team closely can recite previous flair ups almost by date. Game 2 of last year's Western Conference Finals in Dallas. At Memphis last December. Game 3 of this year's Western Conference Semifinals in Los Angeles.
The pattern is familiar. The ultracompetitive Westbrook shifts into overdrive, needs some settling down and gets benched. Ultimately, he and the Thunder bounce back. The Thunder, by the way, won two of those three games.
This time, however, the results were disastrous. A quick review:
Westbrook plays fabulously during the stretch that opens a 60-51 OKC lead, blocking Dwyane Wade's path to the basket, lobbying alley-oops and picking his team up with man-down, hand-down leadership. Then Durant goes to the bench foul No. 4, and Westbrook follows a minute later after four straight bad possessions: turnover, quick shot, missed layup, charging call.
Review them with an open mind and you'll see Westbrook doing his best to make something happen in Durant's absence. That might have something to do with the way he took sitting almost twice as long as his normal third-quarter rest.
Without him, Oklahoma City missed eight straight shots in a 4½-minute stretch that produces a 15-2 Heat run that changed the game.
Brooks insisted Monday that he wasn't trying to get Westbrook's attention.
“There was no message. I just took him out,” said Brooks, adding that he hoped the break would allow Westbrook to “regroup.” The Heat certainly did.
Brooks attributed that more to freak plays than Westbrook's absence. The Heat hit six straight free throws (courtesy of Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher's fouls on 3-point shooters) and Oklahoma City missed five. That is pretty freaky.
Still, does anyone else think we'll see Durant and Westbrook out of the lineup as long as this series is competitive? I didn't think so.
It was as mistake. Fortunately for Thunderworld, everyone seems to have turned the page. Brooks was back to his usually “I love Russell” talk. And Westbrook was, well, Westbrook.
Question: Did you learn anything?
Westbrook: “Not really. I don't know. But just be ready to go back in.”
Question: Did anyone explain why he sat five minutes with an NBA Finals game slipping away?
Question: Would you have liked them to?
Westbrook: “No, I mean they don't have to ... cater to what is best for me. You have to do what is best for the team.”
Of that, Kendrick Perkins says he has no doubt.
“I've always said Russ is a competitor, man,” said Perkins, who grew out of that angry young man to become a champion as an indispensable part of the 2008 Celtics. “It may look like to certain people that he's doing the wrong thing. In his head he's really trying to do the right thing, and we know what.
“After that, we just move forward. It's no more looking back or none of that. We do a pretty good job of sticking together.”