Why Was Russell Westbrook So Upset About a Silly Final-Seconds Dunk?

Like MLB, the NBA has its own set of useless "unwritten rules"

Russell Westbrook screaming during a basketball game.
Relax, Russ. It's only two points.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the youngest team in the NBA (the Oklahoma City Thunder) beat the oldest team in the NBA (the Los Angeles Lakers) by a score of 123-115. The average age of the Thunder is just 23.5; their primary scoring options are a bunch of kids you haven’t heard of, like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguenz Dort. The Lakers, of course, are led by established superstars like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. The team’s average age is 30.9 years old.

The loss dropped the Lakers to 2-3 on the season, ahead of tonight’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s been a rocky start for a team most analysts expect to compete for at least the Western Conference Finals this year, and that frustration was most on display in the final seconds of Wednesday’s game, when Westbrook started screaming at Thunder power forward Darius Bazley and was ejected from the game.

What was his problem? With four seconds left on the clock, and the Lakers down six, Lakers guard Rajon Rondo threw a lazy cross-court inbounds pass in the direction of Carmelo Anthony. Bazley intercepted the pass and, all alone, sprinted to the basket for an emphatic dunk. The game was played in Oklahoma City, so naturally the home fans went nuts. Bazley hung on the rim for an extra millisecond to ham it up. But the entire sequence, as you can see in the video below, sent Westbrook off the edge.

The 33-year-old former MVP, who is making $44 million this year, immediately got in the face of the 21-year-old Bazley (who’s in his third year in the league and making just $2.5 million, go figure) to yell “DON’T DO THAT,” over and over again. The benches cleared, level-headed teammates came in to bear-hug Westbrook, and by the time the smoke had cleared, Westbrook had been assessed his second technical foul: grounds for an immediate ejection.

After the game, Westbrook offered this quote to reporters: “When shit like that happens I don’t let it slide … There’s certain things you just don’t do in sports.”

Why don’t you, you might wonder? Unwritten rules, of course. We normally associate them with baseball, where unforgivable actions like swinging on a 3-0 count with the lead, or flipping a bat, apparently rob the game of its beautiful, pearl-clutching purity. In this case, Westbrook expects Bazley to sit back and let Rondo make his poor pass, or at the very least dribble out the clock after stealing the ball.

But more often than not, unwritten rules are invoked by the losing side. Westbrook was upset his team blew a lead. An LA native who was giddy to come back and finish his career with his hometown team, he’s likely irritated with how this season has started. Plus, the Thunder franchise once belonged to him. Every competitive player wants to remind an old fanbase (whether they’re cheering or booing his return) that he’s still got the goods.

Plus, the age difference is crucial. NBA players have a tendency to put younger players in their place. They infantilize them in isolation or step over them after blocking a shot. But here, without much ground to stand on, Westbrook went the weakest route: yelling bloody murder about the “right” way to play the game.

Notice that not a single member of the Lakers bench, nor Coach Frank Vogel, ran on the court to confront Bazley. Here’s the reality: you can’t tell young, hungry players to “play until the whistle,” but also tell them to mind the insecurities of an aging star on a struggling team. The majority of players in the NBA are fighting for playing time and the majority of fans want a good show. Watching another team seal your fate might not feel good — but that doesn’t mean you get to scream and whine about it. That might be the biggest unwritten rule of them all.

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