MIAMI - Thunder coach Scott Brooks took a calculated risk by removing Russell Westbrook from Sunday’s Game 3 just 40 seconds after Kevin Durant departed in the third quarter with his fourth foul.
The risk was perhaps a critical mistake as the Heat rallied from a 10-point deficit with a 15-3 quarter-ending run, and by the time both stars reentered to begin the fourth quarter, the Heat had seized the momentum. James Harden was unable to carry the scoring load with both All-Stars on the bench, and the question for Brooks is whether he would take out Durant and Westbrook again at such a critical juncture.
“No, there was no message, I just took him out,’’ Brooks said Monday. “[Westbrook] had a bad stretch. He was about to come out within probably the next two minutes to get his normal rest. As much as I love Russell, and everybody knows how much I love Russell, it’s hard to play 24 straight minutes at the high level that he plays at both ends of the floor in a major playoff game.
“But I took him out. That bad stretch, part of it was we fouled two 3-point shooters and gave them six free throws, and in that same stretch we missed five free throws, and we missed two open jump shots, turned it over and missed a layup. So there’s a lot of things that happened during that stretch.’’
Westbrook did not take kindly to being removed, walking to the end of the bench, slamming his towel on his seat, then brooding as the lead slipped away. The Thunder did not regain control of the game and Westbrook managed just 4 points and one assist in the final period of the 91-85 loss.
“Russell has been a winner, and he’s put us in this position, and we wouldn’t be here in this position if it wasn’t for Russell,’’ Brooks said. “That’s over with. We’re moving on to Game 4. It’s never nothing personal with me. It’s about getting better, trying to figure out lineups that we can move forward.’’
Westbrook attempted 50 combined shots in the first two games and 18 in Game 3, but he never appeared to find the rhythm he established in the first two games.
“You know, it was tough,’’ Westbrook said. “We had a nice little lead going into the fourth quarter. Wasn’t really too much I could do about it, nor Kevin. Kevin had five fouls at the time. But it was the coach’s decision. You have to live with it. Didn’t have too many conversations of coming back into the game, kind of just waited and seeing when I get called to go back in.
“Just wanted to stay in the game. You know, it was an important time at the time, an opportunity for us to go up who knows how many points. Just upset with myself.’’
Getting to the line
The Heat reached the free throw line 35 times in Game 3, 24 in the second half. Durant has had foul trouble the past two games while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade each helped the Heat pull away by completing conventional 3-point plays. And during Miami’s big third-quarter run, the Thunder fouled Shane Battier and James Jones attempting 3-point shots and gave up six free throws.
Fouling has become a major issue for the Thunder.
“We always talk about our first defense is guard your man without fouling, and we fouled too many times,’’ Brooks said. “But we’ve always done a good job of closing that gap because we’re an aggressive team. We get to the foul line. We have to do a better job of doing that.’’
Power forward Nick Collison has picked up 10 personal fouls (third on the team to Durant and Harden) in just 49 minutes in the series.
Stopping the flopping
David Stern is determined to stop the floppers, even if it takes until the next morning. The NBA commissioner believes too many players are deceiving referees into calling fouls by falling down, or flopping. So he and the league’s newly reformed competition committee met Monday for a discussion about how it can be prevented. One option, Stern said, is a “postgame analysis’’ in which a player could be penalized if it was determined he flopped. The league retroactively upgrades or downgrades flagrant fouls after review, and along those lines he said that perhaps a player could receive a message from New York saying: “Greetings from the league office. You have been assigned flopper status.’’ The committee is made up of coaches Doc Rivers of Boston, Rick Carlisle of Dallas, and Lionel Hollins of Memphis; owners Dan Gilbert of Cleveland and Joe Lacob of Golden State, and general managers Bryan Colangelo of Toronto, Sam Presti of Oklahoma City, Mitch Kupchak of the Lakers, and Kevin O’Connor of Utah . . . Game 3 ratings were down slightly from last season, but overall the series’ average rating through three games is the highest since 2004. Sunday night’s game on ABC earned an 8.8 rating, a 3 percent drop from last year’s Mavericks-Heat matchup.