Who’s stubborn now?
Not Scott Brooks.
Not after the way he coached Game 6 on Thursday night.
Brooks pulled all the right strings in the Thunder’s 104-84 thumping of Memphis in Game 6. But for all the adjustments he made to get this series all square at three games apiece, it’s the critical decision he made at the team’s morning shootaround that could have the longest and largest impact.
For only the first time since inserting Russell Westbrook into the starting lineup soon after taking over for P.J. Carlesimo back in 2008, the Thunder coach altered his starting lineup for strategic reasons.
He replaced Thabo Sefolosha with Caron Butler.
“Coach pulled me to the side real quick and just told me that I was going to get the start that night and get prepared mentally,” Butler said.
And just like that, it was done, a bold move executed in the biggest game of the season.
But it made all the sense in the world.
Since the start of this series, the Grizzlies have tried to exploit Sefolosha’s offensive limitations by hiding point guard Mike Conley on him defensively. It allows Memphis to keep its floor general off of Russell Westbrook and, therefore, fresh and out of foul trouble.
Sefolosha never made Memphis pay. Through the first five games of the series, he averaged just 3.4 points and connected on only 33.3 percent of his field goal attempts. His accuracy from 3-point range dipped down to 28.6 percent. For as good as his defense was at times against Conley and Memphis shooting guard Courtney Lee, Sefolosha was a liability on offense against the defensive-minded Grizzlies.
Sefolosha, despite having been a fixture in the first string, never saw the floor in Game 6.
“They tried to force Conley to play Westbrook,” said Memphis coach Dave Joerger. “And we didn’t flinch. We left Courtney Lee on Westbrook and took our chances with Butler. I don’t think it’s a trade secret that if they want to throw it to Caron Butler 62 times instead of Durant and Westbrook; even if he’s being guard by a 5-8 guy, I prefer that.”
But what Joerger can’t and won’t say while this is still a series is that the Thunder doesn’t have to lean on Butler. His mere presence creates problems that Memphis and whichever team waits after the Grizzlies must be mindful of.
Butler hasn’t been a huge scoring threat in this series, but he’s averaging almost double Sefolosha’s production — 6.7 points on 45.5 percent shooting from 3-point range. As a two-time All-Star and a career 15.1-point scorer, Butler commands more defensive attention than Sefolosha simply by stepping onto the court.
And when you put him next to Westbrook and Kevin Durant, that becomes a problem for opponents.
No longer can defenses load up and lock in on Durant and Westbrook. Butler’s shooting ability sucks his defender away from the paint. He makes the defense respect him. And that creates not just additional driving lanes for the Thunder’s All-Star duo, but also a more reliable outlet for Westbrook and Durant to kick out to when doubled or just looking for the drive and dish.
“The way they play, they pack the paint so we have to have guys that can spot up,” Brooks said of the Grizzlies.
Close observers of the Thunder have been calling for Brooks to make a similar change for years, dating back to James Harden’s days in a Thunder uniform. With one stroke, Brooks could implement more balance to the starting unit and alleviate enormous pressure off of Durant and Westbrook. The risk, of course, was the potential for a drop off defensively or a breakdown in chemistry.
Only now will we learn which direction it will go.
There have been only two other occasions in which Brooks decided to somewhat shuffle his first string. They came in Game 4 of the first round last year against Houston when he benched an ineffective Kendrick Perkins for the start of the second half, and again when he did the same at Miami this season. Rather than a revolving door of players starting at shooting guard and center — even when matchups clearly have suggested a change could be beneficial — Brooks has long preferred maintaining experience, consistency and chemistry.
But with the Thunder on the brink of elimination Thursday, Brooks went deep into his bag of tricks.
And if Butler performs up to his capabilities there might be no turning back.