|The second most efficient scorer for OKC behind K.D., Harden's among the NBA's most efficient. (Getty Images)|
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Scott Brooks can play it cool and do nothing. That's certainly his right as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He can show confidence in his team by making no major adjustments before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, even after the Thunder started Game 1 poorly and then started Game 2 atrociously. Panic? NBA champions don't panic. Brooks could take that approach and draw up the same starting lineup for Game 3.
Or he could give his team the best possible chance at winning and put James Harden in the starting lineup.
I know, I know. James Harden is a super-sub. He's so super, he was named the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year this season. Making him a starter Sunday night in Game 3 would be a concession that the Thunder's starting five -- which isn't the Thunder's best five -- cannot play with the Heat's best five. It would be tantamount to panicking.
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Then again, it could be time to panic.
A few minutes into Game 1, the Thunder trailed by 10. The climb back was exhausting, but by the start of the fourth quarter, the Thunder had done it. They took the lead and never gave it up. Still, it wasn't easy, and Brooks talked before Game 2 of his team's need to get off to a better start. That was a major focus, Brooks said.
A few minutes into Game 2, the Thunder trailed 18-2.
This is a problem, OK? One time is a fluke. Twice? That's a problem.
Luckily for Brooks, he has a solution. It would be radical, but so is an 18-2 deficit. An 18-2 deficit isn't just a game-changer. It's a game-ender. The Thunder never recovered from that lousy start, never led the Heat, never even tied the score. The score was 18-2 early, and while there were more than 40 minutes left to play, the game was basically over.
So like I said, Brooks can play it cool for Game 3. He can demonstrate the utmost confidence in his team by trotting out the same starting five and assuming -- hoping -- it will start better on the road than it started at home in the first two games of the series.
Or he can do like Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and make a change. Call it panicking, call it adjusting, but call what Spoelstra did in Game 2 successful. He started Chris Bosh for the first time in nearly a month. He emptied the bench in the first quarter to rest his starters. He had LeBron James defend Kevin Durant.
The Heat adjusted, and the Heat won.
Now it's the Thunder's turn.
Putting Harden into the starting lineup wouldn't be change just for change's sake. It would be surgical, precise -- like the Heat's adjustments in Game 2. The Thunder need more offense? Harden is the second most efficient scorer on the team behind NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant, and one of the most efficient scorers in the league.
More than that, Harden offers an alternative to the biggest problem facing the Thunder early in games: Russell Westbrook.
Maybe it's the magnitude of the moment, but Westbrook has started poorly in each of the first two games. That's a problem when any of your top players starts poorly, but when it's a player who dominates the ball? That's crushing. Westbrook has been too aggressive in the first quarter of Games 1 and 2, too eager, too erratic. He's not shying away from the moment; he's trying too hard to demolish it, and instead he's demolishing his team's offense early by forcing difficult shots, missing them, then attempting to make up for it by forcing even tougher shots and missing them. It's a vicious cycle, and midway through the first quarter of Game 2, it was 18-2.
Harden is the team's backup point guard, but he splits those duties with Westbrook when they're on the floor together. Harden in the starting lineup would give the Thunder another alternative to Westbrook, who is just as likely to bring the ball up the court and shoot it -- going one-on-one for 90 feet, never passing -- as he is to get the Thunder into an offensive set.
Westbrook doesn't have the discipline and maybe even the basketball IQ to stop himself, but his teammates do. Specifically, Durant and Kendrick Perkins have the basketball IQ to stop Westbrook -- but they need another option on the court. Without Harden, Westbrook is all the Thunder have. His teammates have no choice but to give him the ball in the backcourt and hope he gives it up in the frontcourt.
Harden's a different player. Not a pure point guard by any means -- then again, neither is Westbrook -- but a more cerebral player. Westbrook attacks, whereas Harden probes. Against a defense as ruthless as the Heat's, probing would come in handy early in the game.
Anyway, don't count on it. After Game 2, Brooks talked at length about his team's slow starts in the first two games -- he blamed it on poor shooting and a lack of defensive toughness -- but wouldn't say what he had in mind to change it. Asked specifically if he had thought about changing his starting lineup, Brooks said he had not.
"No, not at all," Brooks said, though he added that "we just lost 30 minutes ago," as if to suggest that maybe, given more time to think about it, a change to the lineup could happen.
Then again, Brooks seems to think it's a simple matter of shooting better.
"I just think we were missing shots," he said.
Yes, they were. Sounds like the Thunder could use a guy who makes shots. What do you know? They have just such a guy on the bench. He comes off the bench eventually, of course, but by the time James Harden came off the bench in Game 2, the Thunder trailed 16-2.
Seems silly, really.