When Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks started Caron Butler for the struggling Thabo Sefolosha in the second round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers, it was a first for him. That move was the first time that he changed his starting lineup for reasons other than injury since he started Russell Westbrook at point guard for the first time during his rookie year.
These playoffs have been somewhat of a revelation for Brooks, who has long been criticized for his inability to change lineups to take advantage of matchups and his stubborn insistence in using the same rotations every game. These playoffs, for the first time, have been different. Brooks has finally embraced the unique skill sets that each player brings to the team and adjusted when things aren’t going well.
It started with Butler, who contributed far more than what the defensive-minded Sefolosha had given so far in the shoot-out series against the Clippers. With all of the games being so high scoring, Butler’s three point shooting was more useful than the defense that Sefolosha was playing. In fact, Brooks seems to have replaced Sefolosha in the rotation completely now, with Reggie Jackson getting the last two starts at the two guard while Thabo sits at the end of the bench.
Don’t get me wrong, Thabo Sefolosha is an excellent defender, but his play has greatly regressed this season, and he may have seen his last minutes in a Thunder uniform. Should the Thunder advance to the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers, Sefolosha may find himself right back in the rotation, tasked with slowing down either LeBron James or Paul George. But for now, against the San Antonio Spurs, he is a liability, and Brooks has finally made a change before it was too late.
Jackson provides just the type of compliment that the Thunder offense needs alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He provides more floor spacing that gives the other two more room to drive to the basket and can hit a three when called upon. He also can create shots for himself, provides another ball handler and is an excellent passer.
Some of Sefolosha’s minutes have also been given to Jeremy Lamb, one of the prizes of the James Harden trade. Lamb has scored 32 points in 79 minutes in the first five games against the Spurs, as opposed to eight points in 15 minutes in the series against the Memphis Grizzlies and Clippers. While he sometimes goes into shooting slumps, some of that can be attributed to the fact that Brooks did not play Lamb much during the regular season to let him develop his shot. He should continue to see his minutes rise and eventually take over a starting spot in the future.
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The biggest change that Brooks has made in these playoffs, though, is in the frontcourt. Finally, after years when it seemed painfully obvious to everyone but him, Scott Brooks has accepted Kendrick Perkins for what he is: an aging veteran who should get no more than 20 minutes of playing time a game.
Personally, I would like to see Perkins limited to between 10-15 minutes, but the baby steps are a great start. For years, Brooks has maintained that Perkins is his starting center, even though he has clearly lost a step and is no longer the defensive presence that he once was. With the emergence of rookie Steven Adams, Brooks now has a viable option at center to give him a reason to replace Perkins.
Adams has seen more minutes in all but one game in the Western Conference Finals and is playing much more efficient basketball. He has been blocking shots at an amazing clip, pulling down 10+ rebounds almost nightly and also providing a solid scoring option in the low post. He is clearly the future at center, and Brooks and Thunder fans everywhere seem to be embracing him. The combination of Adams and Serge Ibaka down low has been electrifying, making it hard on Tim Duncan and any other Spur who ventures into the paint.
Down 3-2 in the best of seven series, the Thunder now go home for Game 6 needing a win to force a decisive Game 7 in San Antonio. They know that they can do it, as they won two straight against the Grizzlies in the first round to move on. The Spurs also cannot seem to figure out how to win at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, which the Thunder hope to take advantage of. If the Thunder want to go back to the NBA Finals, they will need the full effort of their new youthful lineup to do something that neither team has managed to do so far: win on the road.
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