With their backs against the wall on Thursday night, the Thunder played differently. The defensive rotations were crisper, the ball movement more fluid, the energy explosive from start to finish.
But in the crucial 104-84 blowout win, the Thunder also coached differently. And that was just as important.
Facing elimination, Scott Brooks made the type of adjustments he’s long been hesitant to pull.
And it started with the starting lineup.
Without even hinting at it the past 48 hours, Brooks surprised the basketball world right before tip-off, benching lineup mainstay Thabo Sefolosha and replacing him with Caron Butler. It was his first strategic starting lineup change – due to neither injury nor trade – since his first year, when he replaced Earl Watson with Russell Westbrook .
It paid immediate dividends.
Butler’s presence infused an extra 3-point threat into the mix. During a dominant start to the game – a 19-8 Thunder lead seven minutes in – Butler hit a three. But more importantly, he improved the spacing, allowing both Durant and Russell Westbrook more room to operate and find an immediate rhythm.
Durant had 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the first quarter. The Thunder cruised from there.
“Energy, defensive disposition,” Butler said when asked what he brought to the starting lineup. “An edge, attitude and just a will to not lose tonight.”
At one point early in the third – after another Butler three – Marc Gasol barked at Zach Randolph. “I told you not to help,” Gasol said. Randolph was forced into guarding Butler and was clearly out of his comfort zone.
“We spread ‘em out a little bit,” Durant said.