|Nick Collison should've tapped Scott Brooks on the shoulder to remind him he exists. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Thunder have clearly grown up this postseason. They've matured, developed, evolved -- pick the word and they've done it. They've closed games, fought back from deficits, showed incredible resolve and figured out ways to win enough to advance to within three wins of an NBA title.
The Thunder's youngest guns -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- are front and center in that regard, playing playoff basketball well past their years. They don't act their age, and they definitely don't play like it.
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But it's not just the players. Thunder coach Scott Brooks has also developed, grown, matured et cetera et cetera from a guy that some felt wasn't cut out for the job he had into someone most think might be as hot a free agent there is this summer. He's managed his lineups well, adjusted in big moments, figured out how to take advantage of matchups and handled the postseason exceptionally well. He's rapidly risen to one of the game's finer coaches, a master motivater and improving tactician.
Which is what makes Game 2 so frustrating.
Brooks is notoriously stubborn with his lineups and rotations, something that has paid dividends for him in the past. He prefers consistency and stablility, and doesn't like the idea of altering the plan on a whim. It's not the Thunder way, all the way down to the core of the organization. The whole mantra in OKC is to maintain a certain faith in the process, to believe in the plan. That's not a critique of Brooks either. Continuity with a young team is a good, wise choice.
So as his team stumbled out of the gate yet again this postseason, watching Miami's small starting five torch them, Brooks wasn't flinching. He was sticking with the gameplan, leaving the starters on the floor and playing things out.
But an 18-2 hole to start the game, something Durant cited as the reason the Thunder lost, has to be concerning. Concerning enough to change the starting five though to match Miami?
"No, not at all," Brooks said. "We just lost 30 minutes ago, so I just think we were missing shots. We didn't come out with the defensive toughness, the disposition that we need to play with. We have to do that first, and then if it doesn't work, then we'll think about doing other things. But right now we have to play better from the very start."
It's more likely I get a 10-day contract than Brooks switches his starting five. It's been the same group since the Kendrick Perkins-Jeff Green trade and it's not changing. That's who the Thunder are and it's how they shall remain.
The area Brooks whiffed in Game 2 though was with his in-game adjustment in his secret weapon smallball lineup. Instead of subbing out Thabo Sefolosha in the first quarter for James Harden with about five minutes left, Harden checked in for Serge Ibaka. And then Brooks pulled the same move with five minutes left in the third. Brooks went small, but he did it with the wrong big.
Perkins has a lot of value to this Thunder team, but it's primarily in his post defense against interior focused scorers. Like Andrew Bynum, for example. The Heat though, are playing Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem as their 5. Which minimizes Perkins' value. And yet Brooks is sticking with his scowling big man, for reasons unknown to many.
"He's one of our better players," Brooks said of Perkins. "We have three good choices: Serge, Nick and Perk. I thought Perk -- Perk is our best screener. He gets guys open. He scores by setting screens, and there's no stat for that, but that's what he does.
Small ball, medium ball, big ball, that did not lose the game," he continued. "Toughness lost the game. We didn't come out with the toughness that we need to come out with. We're an aggressive team, we're a physical team, we are a -- defensive mindset was not where it needs to be, and hopefully we change that going into Game 3."
The curiousity though stems from the fact Nick Collison had such a major impact on Game 1, and only saw 14 minutes and 32 seconds of playing time in Game 2. It was no grand coincidence that the Thunder's fourth quarter push that cut Miami's lead to four came with Collison on the floor.
Now the numbers lean differently. The Thunder's best defensive quarter in terms of efficiency was the third, when Perkins played center in the small lineup. With Collison as the 5 in the fourth, OKC allowed 120 points per 100 possessions. (They had an offensive efficiency of 154 though.)
But here's where those effiiency numbers fail: The most important stat is the scoreboard. And unless it's moving, it doesn't matter. The scoreboard wasn't moving with Perkins in the game as the 5. Like in Game 1, it moved when Collison got those minutes. And in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
The Thunder were a +1 with Perkins on the floor as the only big. Which is obviously fine. The problem is, the Thunder were playing from behind for virtually the entire game, and a small lineup with Perkins doesn't typically lead to offense, which is what OKC needed at the time.
What's the explanation? I sure don't have one. Brooks' point that Perkins is a great screener is certainly valid, but the issue with that is that Collison actually might be the best screener on the team. And if you don't like Collison in that spot, what about Serge Ibaka who had five blocks and adds a pick-and-pop dimension to the offense?
It's not Kendrick Perkins' fault by any stretch. He's not built for these matchups. He's built to push, bang and play rough in the post against seven-footers. It's up to Brooks to realize that and put the best possible lineups on the floor. He did that in Game 1. He left Harden on the bench for most of the fourth, stuck with Collison and rode out a hot lineup. Game 2, Brooks dropped the ball.