OKLAHOMA CITY — Running away with a win against a Memphis team in disarray after trading away top scorer Rudy Gay, the Oklahoma City Thunder found a way to come unhinged, too.
An outburst aimed at his own team earned All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook a third-quarter benching and gave the Grizzlies a glimmer of hope before Oklahoma City closed out a 106-89 victory Thursday night.
Just when the Thunder seemed to be firmly in control, Westbrook started sniping with his teammates after a possession when he posted up along the left side of the lane and eventually got called for a turnover when Jerryd Bayless stuck with him on defense for 5 seconds.
Westbrook then spiked the ball twice while gesturing toward Thabo Sefolosha and Durant that they needed to get open. He then hollered toward coach Scott Brooks on the bench.
Memphis followed his outburst with 10 straight points to make it a game again — with Westbrook getting an early hook during the stretch and heading down the tunnel toward the locker room.
Westbrook described it as “just a little miscommunication.” Brooks said it was an offensive play that went awry. Sefolosha acted as though nothing happened.
The result was a mini-implosion by the defending Western Conference champions right in the public eye.
“It was a disagreement,” said Durant, who scored 27 points. “This is the game of basketball. You have so many different emotions on one team. You’re going to have disagreements. It wasn’t the first. It’s not going to be the last.
“You’ve just got to know how to respond to each other. I think we always do a great job of that.”
When disputes arise, Durant said the Thunder know how to “talk it out and don’t let it simmer for a long time.”
“I decided to take Russell out because we needed to calm down,” Brooks said. “Russell went in the back. It was nothing. He just had to regroup. ... It was nothing that has not happened before — not just with him, with all of our guys.”
Brooks finally put him back in the game to start the fourth, after Memphis had pulled to 77-67 in the final minute of the third quarter. Westbrook, who finished with 21 points, hit a pull-up jumper and set up Kevin Martin for a 3-pointer in transition on consecutive possessions to bump the lead back up to 86-69 with 9:32 remaining.
That all but ended the Grizzlies’ bid to come back from a 26-point deficit.