For the past three seasons, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has been the envy of many in his profession, getting to command a group widely viewed as the league's future.
At this particular moment, however, few coaches wish they were Brooks.
OKC is down 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals against San Antonio, a team that has won 20 straight games, with half of those victories coming in the postseason. The Spurs haven't lost since April 11 and have won 31 of 33 dating back to March 21.
A fatigued Brooks remains undeterred.
“This is what you live for, as a player, as a coach,” Brooks said Wednesday after his team met to chat and not to practice or break down film. “As I told (my players), 'There are 26 other teams who would love to be in this position right now, and if you don't look at it that way, you're missing the boat.' It's a great opportunity. Is it a very difficult challenge ahead? Absolutely. We're playing against the best team in basketball.”
What can Brooks do to stop the bleeding in Game 3, which begins at 8 p.m. Thursday at Chesapeake Energy Arena?
Some questions you might be asking:
Why not have Thabo Sefolosha defend Tony Parker, a one-man wrecking crew averaging 26.0 points, 7.0 assists, 5.5 rebounds and shooting 61.1 percent from the field so far in the series?
The 6-foot-7 Sefolosha has a 7-foot wingspan and is one of the league's premier one-on-one defenders. Trouble is, defending the pick-and-roll is anything but one-on-one. It's part-rumba, part-rumble and the Spurs probably run it 60-70 times a game.
Having Sefolosha defend out front means little when he constantly has to fight through screens. His length is better served defending passing lanes rather than chasing Parker around the mulberry bush.
Part of the Thunder's problem has been a lack of communication. Teammates must verbally warn point guard Russell Westbrook when a pick is coming (that's you, Serge Ibaka).
And by the way, Parker is the best point guard in the NBA. He's better than Westbrook, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and any other name you care to throw out there.
With the proper combination — such as Parker and Hall of Fame teammate Tim Duncan — the pick-and-roll can frequently be impossible to defend, which is why the attack has become the cornerstone of teams gifted with an able point guard.
“It's a pick-and-roll league, and it's your ability to guard the pick-and-roll, and impact the ball, and keep teams from getting penetration that really determine your success,” said Thunder reserve point guard Derek Fisher, who is in his 16th season. “By nature, the pick-and-roll is two guys against one. So regardless how good a defender you are by yourself, (when) someone comes and sets a pick on you, it's putting you at a disadvantage.
“It's not a secret. We just have to figure it out.”
Fisher then came with the stock answer from every player and coach.
“The pick-and-roll defense is about all five guys, not just a guy on the ball, and not just the big guy guarding the screen, but all five guys being able to shrink the floor and really play together as a team on the defensive end,” Fisher said.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich gave the same five-as-one speech discussing how the Spurs defend Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden. No one can guard those guys one-on-one.
“With a pick-and-roll defender, length is not as much of a factor,” Brooks said. “It's a commitment by five guys. Even (Spurs sixth man Manu) Ginobili said I'm not a one-on-one player. I'm a pick-and-roll player. It's the same thing on defense. You can be a bad one-on-one defender, but a great pick-and-roll defender.”
That being said, don't be stunned if the Thunder indeed has Sefolosha defend Parker.
At this point, it couldn't hurt.
Does there come a time when the Thunder starts to experiment defensively, or does Brooks trust his original instinct?
The answer is both.
“We'll make a few adjustments,” Brooks said, obviously not revealing what those might be. “Whatever we have to do, we have to do it with incredible effort, because they throw incredible shooters on the floor, and they have an amazing point guard. Their big is Duncan, so they make you make some tough decisions, but you have to make them and you have to live with some things.”
If the Thunder can't defend the Spurs, why not just try to outscore them?
Um, isn't outscoring the other team always the goal, with or without defense?
In Game 2, Durant (31 points), Harden (30) and Westbrook (27) combined for 88 points, yet the Thunder still lost 120-111, never led and trailed by as many as 22.
“Points doesn't matter,” Harden said. “It's about us defending. We're going to score points. We're going to give you 90-100 points, but they had 120, so it's defense that matters. That's what we've got to get down is really locking in, really trying to contain them and stop them on the defensive end.”
Again, there's that incessant talk of defense.
“Five guys on the court at one time really playing and locking in for 48 minutes,” Harden said. “They do a great job of passing the ball. If one or two people are in (the paint) with everybody else, that's when it doesn't work and they score, or they get layups and that's when they get 3s. We'll have to be on the same page, ready to close out to their shooters.”
Bench Kendrick Perkins. Let Nick Collison defend the stretch 4 when necessary and put Ibaka at center to patrol the middle.
You want to be the one to tell Perk he's not starting?