SAN ANTONIO — Scott Brooks kept trying different combinations Monday night. Three point guards at the same time. Kevin Durant at center. Even Jeremy Lamb got to dust off his Nikes and play.
But despite all the experimenting, Perry Jones wasn’t included.
A guy who was able to stay in front of LeBron James pretty well during the regular season wasn’t given a shot against a Spurs team that has no forward nearly as good the Miami menace. Jones is athletic and long. That could’ve helped on the defensive end, where the Thunder struggled mightily, and as a bonus, it could’ve helped the Thunder run, run, run and attack, attack, attack the aging Spurs.
But not until the Spurs had thoroughly torched the Thunder and were up big in the fourth quarter did Jones get some garbage minutes. Leaving him on the bench was as much of a head scratcher as any of the unorthodox lineups that Brooks tossed on the court.
I’m not knocking the Thunder coach for throwing some things against the wall to see if they’d stick in Game 1. Lose a mainstay like Serge Ibaka right before you face the well-oiled black-and-silver machine in San Antonio, and experimentation is necessary, even if it’s in the Western Conference Finals.
But why not give Jones a go?
I asked Brooks that question after the Thunder finished up practice Tuesday afternoon.
“There’s only 240 minutes” Brooks said of the playing time available in every NBA game. “You can’t play everybody. It’s not a league that everybody gets an opportunity.”
I’m not asking for everybody to get a chance. I’m asking for Jones to get one.
The Thunder struggled mightily on defense in the series opener. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined for 59 points, which isn’t great but is a total the Thunder could stomach. But giving up 16 points to Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green? Allowing Boris Diaw to score nine second-half points? Those are the kind of things that’ll kill you.
Tell Jones to go out there, lock in one of those guys and see what happens.
That’s what Brooks did earlier this season against the Heat. Of course, the guy he told Jones to lock in on was LeBron. Seemed like a tall order, but Jones’ defense on James helped turn an 18-point deficit into a 25-point lead and an eventual 17-point shellacking. With Jones on the court, the Thunder was able to exploit the Heat’s aging roster with spry legs and superior length.
And if you think the Heat is aging, check out the Spurs.
Jones turned the tide against the Heat. Why couldn’t he do the same against the Spurs?
I’m not saying he’s some sort of defensive savant. But he’s 6-foot-11. He’s got a 7-foot-plus wing span. He’s agile. He’s lively. Could he struggle some with the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense? Sure. But could it be much worse than what we saw much of Monday night?
Jones, for one, feels like he could have an impact in this series.
“I always feel like that,” he told me after practice Tuesday. “As a basketball player, I always feel I can do something to help out the team. All I can do is stay ready, and hopefully when my name gets called, if it does and the opportunity presents itself, I’ll try the best I can.”
When the Heat came to Oklahoma City, Jones played less than he had in Miami. He didn’t have as much success against LeBron, but that was Russell Westbrook’s first game back after his midseason knee surgery, so everything was a bit out of whack. But Jones wasn’t all bad. He scored eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, nailed the lone 3-pointer that he attempted and grabbed five rebounds.
He’s good enough offensively to make defenses keep an eye on him. He can run the floor and help the Thunder try to push the tempo. He can stress the Spurs’ defense and help spread it out to open things a bit more for Durant and Westbrook.
Listen, I’m not suggesting that Jones is a superhero hiding in plain sight, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to give him a shot.
Brooks hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Jones could play more as this series continues.
“He’s definitely activated,” the coach said, “and he has an opportunity to step in there.”
Two years ago when Oklahoma City and San Antonio met in the Western Conference Finals, another defensive switch flipped the series. Brooks decided to take Russell Westbrook off Tony Parker and put Thabo Sefolosha on the Spurs’ speedy point guard.
Sefolosha changed the series.
So could Jones.
He isn’t a savior. But he might just be a series changer. And right now, that’s what the Thunder needs most.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.