DALLAS — Less than two hours before one of the biggest games of his coaching career, Scott Brooks was horsing around in the bowels of the American Airlines Center.
The Thunder coach spied an old friend coming down the hall and playfully raised both fists like he was ready to fight.
His would-be sparing partner?
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle.
Sure, they're former teammates and roommates. Yes, they consider each other friends. But still, how often do you see a war of words like these two had earlier in this Western Conference playoff series end with a bit of shadowboxing?
It just doesn't happen.
Then again, there aren't many coaches as comfortable in their own skin as Brooks.
“There's no ego. There's no mind games. There's nothing ever extra,” Thunder veteran Nick Collison said. “It's just straight forward — the way we're going to improve is to do our work every day — and that's what's always been consistent.
“It's nice to play for a guy where it's not about him.”
And Brooks has remained focused on the team and the process of building a champion even though he isn't assured a job after this season. He is a free agent. He is under contract with the Thunder only through the end of this season.
To this point, there's been no indication that the Thunder plans to have anyone other than Brooks coaching the team for the foreseeable future. General manager Sam Presti always speaks highly of the coach and even broke his own policy of not talking about pending contract negotiations when the subject of Brooks' deal came up earlier this season.
“We hope he remains with the organization for many years to come,” Presti said then.
No reason to think that philosophy has changed. The Thunder won a second consecutive Northwest Division title, snagged the No. 2 seed in the West and emerged as a team capable of winning an NBA championship.
But I promise you, Brooks did nothing but help his cause with that big win Thursday night.
Before Game 3, this Thunder-Mavs series had the look of a drawn-out, hard-fought slugfest. The Thunder had won the first two games on home hardwood by a combined four points, and the Mavs seemed sure to defend their home court.
Instead, the Thunder dominated, leading from start to finish. The Thunder is now on the verge of a sweep. At worst, this series looks like it'll last five games.
Just think how different the series would feel if the Mavs had done to the Thunder what it did to them in Game 3.
There would be doubts about the Thunder. There would be worries about their chances. There would be questions about Brooks.
Instead, the Thunder Bandwagon has picked up a serious head of steam. Keep it rolling, and Brooks will be due a big-time contract.
Now, I'm not suggesting that the Thunder does something absurd in terms of length of contract or amount of salary. We've seen how unexpectedly and quickly player-team-coach relationships can go south, so there's no need for the Thunder to paint itself into a corner.
But there's also no need to go looking for another coach. Brooks has shown himself exceptional at every phase in this team's development.
“At first, (his job) was just to try to maintain a positive attitude and try to work with guys so we could become better players,” said Collison, one of only three players who've played for Brooks every game of his head coaching career. “Then, we got into the playoffs. Now, things are changing again and it's about how to manage all these talented players and try to build chemistry.
“Like our team has changed, I think his job has changed. And he's done a great job.”
Super sub James Harden said: “It's hard ... when you've got a good group of talent like we have. So many good players, it's hard to keep those players intact. He just does a great job.
“He's the perfect coach for us.”
Maybe it comes from the fact that Brooks played in the NBA. Maybe it's because he had a chance to play for so many different coaches during his journeyman career. Maybe it's just who he is.
Or perhaps it's the combination of all those things.
Brooks does his darnedest to deflect any sort of credit for this team's success.
“I just always focus on the players,” he said. “I think it's important that we just continue to focus on the players.
“Everything we talk about it always about team development, improving as a team.”
The thing is, Brooks is a big part of this team, its improvement and its success.
Remember a couple years ago when people wondered if Brooks could take the Thunder from fringe playoff team to serious playoff contender? Or a year ago when people said he was badly out-coached by Carlisle in the Western Conference Finals?
That talk has been swatted away like a Serge Ibaka rejection.
Scott Brooks is the right coach for this team. The players say it, the front-office bigwigs know it, and the longer this playoff run goes, the more that new contract with the Thunder should reflect it.