A few thoughts about the Thunder’s series-clinching win at Houston in Game 6.
Scott Brooks is not a robot. For 4 1/2 years, we’ve never be quite sure. Tonight, we finally learned the Thunder coach is man and no machine. In the biggest game of the season, Brooks coached his butt off. He didn’t just settle for what’s been successful in the past, for what he’s grown comfortable and probably dependent upon. He finally did away with his rigid rotations and super structured substitution patterns. This time, he adjusted. Adapted. When the Thunder got off to yet another slow start at the beginning of the game, Brooks inserted Kevin Martin for Kendrick Perkins 4 1/2 minutes in. When the bench mob scrapped the Thunder back into the game, closing the opening quarter on a 7-2 spurt, Brooks stuck with them another 3 1/2 minutes to open the second period. His trust paid off, as he watched them wrestle away a five-point lead by starting that frame on a 10-2 run. From that moment, the rotations were dictated by the results. Brooks saw the small lineup succeeding and he stuck with it, playing just one big at a time the rest of the night. He even tweaked his starting five at the beginning of the third period, sitting Perk and trotting out DeAndre Liggins. It didn’t work, at least not in terms of what was reflected on the scoreboard, as the Rockets raced to an 11-4 run to start the second half. But by then Brooks had proved he was all in, willing to do whatever it took to end this stress-filled series tonight. Perk didn’t play a second of the second half. Nick Collison logged 15 minutes more than he did in Game 5, including all 12 fourth-quarter minutes. And for the first time since the first half of Game 2, the Thunder, despite being without its star point guard, looked like a cohesive team again. Every so often, OKC even showed flashes of being the conference power it had been all season. It was more than enough to put away these pesky Rockets. Was it enough for Brooks to leave the robot act in Houston?
Kevin Durant did it all even on a night he didn’t have to. He put his team on his back once again, carrying the Thunder for 43 minutes. He scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished six assists. Durant added two steals and a blocked shot. At times he was the energizer. At others, the stabilizer. Though his defense left more to be desired, Durant’s workload in this series was unmatched by any other player. And so it was only right that on the final night of this series Durant finally received some help. He led six Thunder players in double figures but, for once, could let the game come to him. With his teammates making shots, we saw tonight how much more dangerous Durant is as a dual threat rather than simply a kill-’em-and-pray-for-’em-later scorer. Durant got better as the game progressed because, at a certain point, the Rockets couldn’t key solely on him. If they did, Durant delivered the proper pass and set up the easy play. It was a performance that should both build confidence in the team’s role players and reaffirm to Durant that when he gets in a zone — and his teammates follow his lead — he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
Derek Fisher is that dude in the playoffs. It’s undeniable. Fisher has a flare for the dramatic in the postseason, a penchant for providing big plays in the playoffs. He scored 11 points with four rebounds, an assist and two steals in 27 minutes tonight. He played great defense on the ball and in the passing lanes. And his sharp-shooting (3-for-5 from deep) spaced the court and supplied pivotal baskets that either gave the Thunder the lead or kept the Rockets at bay. We’re six games removed, remember, from a regular season in which Fisher shot 33.3 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from downtown in his stint with the Thunder. In this series, Fisher averaged 8.2 points, shot 53.3 percent from the field and 56.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. The guy was critical to the Thunder getting out of this series alive and, just think, this performance probably doesn’t even come close to cracking his top 10 playoff moments.
Kevin Martin, all is forgiven. K-Mart is still open for business. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). Through the the first five games all Martin was doing was playing his way out of town. He had averaged just 11.4 points on 30 percent shooting. His defining game was about to be a 1-for-10 shooting performance in Game 5. But the Thunder never gave up on him. “I believed in him,” Brooks said. He might have been the only one after Game 5. But aren’t you glad Brooks did? K-Mart was fantastic, scoring 25 points, 21 coming in the first half, while finally displaying the shooting touch that has made him one of the league’s most prolific scorers of the last six seasons. This was only the third 25-point game Martin has had this season and the first since Nov. 16. Martin made five of eight shots in the first half, but after his last few erratic performances you still weren’t quite sure he’d finish the game like he should. That’s when he missed his first three shots of the second half and you thought ‘Uh oh, here we go again.’ But he made his final two, including a fast break dunk off a feed from Fish that put the Thunder ahead by 15 and sent Rockets fans storming up the aisles with 4:31 left to play. Clearly a factor in K-Mart’s success was the return of Collison, who was phenomenal across the board in his own right tonight. With his running mate on the floor, Martin was again able to work the two-man game and get some rhythm, easy scoring opportunities and, apparently, some much-needed confidence back. If that’s what it takes for K-Mart to stay hot, Collison needs to be on the floor with him as much as possible.
Reggie Jackson got better by the game. He was three rebounds and two assists away from a triple-double. And he had only two turnovers. And he scored 17 points. And he played a team-high 44 1/2 minutes. Jackson did all this in his fourth career start, on the road, while filling in for a perennial All-Star. “He led us throughout the game,” Brooks said. “I thought he was terrific tonight.” Indeed. Jackson has been working toward a night like this for two seasons. That’s the important thing to remember. Some of the development you saw, when he was thrown into the fire as a rookie last year, even when it wasn’t pretty last year. Most of it — the early wake-up calls to be among the first at practice, the extra work after practice, the D-League stints, the week of summer league — you probably didn’t. But what we witnessed in the last seven days from Jackson was a testament to his burning desire to become a better player, which is what he became with each passing game in this series. In Game 3, Jackson was simply steady. He didn’t try to do too much or be something, or someone, he’s not. It was the perfect approach for his first career start, and it worked well for him and the team. In Game 4, Jackson began letting shots fly, showing confidence in himself as a shooter and an understanding that he must make the Rockets defense respect him on the perimeter. Game 5 is when Jackson grew aggressive, using his speed and athleticism to attack the rim and score four of his seven field goals from 10 feet and in. Tonight, he combined the previous three games, added more rebounding and much-needed playmaking and walked out of Houston with a series he can build on.