During the regular season, Thunder coach Scott Brooks will stick to his substitution pattern through thick and thin. He tries to keep the same concept in the playoffs, if at all possible.
Not so in his team's 103-100 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 on Saturday night at Staples Center.
With the Lakers' 7-foot frontcourt of Andrew Bynum (42:57) and Pau Gasol (39:16) logging hefty minutes, Brooks had no alternative but to stick with the regulars after the reserves were outmanned and ineffective.
Kevin Durant came in at the 9:35 mark of the second quarter and never sat again. Russell Westbrook came in at the 9:15 mark of the second quarter and never sat again.
Durant played 45 minutes, 35 seconds, his most minutes in a regulation game since Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals last season against the Dallas Mavericks on May 21, 2011. Westbrook played 42 minutes, 56 seconds. Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, who is considered the Thunder's sixth starter, played 32:34.
Serge Ibaka played 33:40 and Kendrick Perkins, despite dealing with a nagging right hip muscle strain, played 32:26.
Because Durant sat for just 2:25, that means backup shooting forward Daequan Cook played just 2:25. Center Nazr Mohammed played 4:03, committed three fouls and surrendered six points to Bynum. Derek Fisher played 15:28 and Nick Collison played 12:10.
Were Saturday's substitutions because of the Lakers' size, or because the Thunder's bench suddenly is shrinking?
“It was a combination of both,” Brooks said Sunday. “DC, he gives us a spark when we feel like we need a shot in the arm with a 3. Nazr, right now he knows that he's the fourth big, and a lot of times we don't get that fourth big in the game. They were playing Bynum and Gasol forty-something minutes the last couple games. Guys just have to be ready. You never know who's going to get an opportunity.
“We went small a few times. We were just trying to find anything that would work and it seemed like nothing was really working for us. We didn't get in any offensive rhythm. Russell kept us in the game early. He kept us within striking distance throughout the game. The bigs came in and did a good job. I thought Perk's rebounding was outstanding, his defense was really good and his screen-setting was good. Without those three things, we don't win that game.”
The Thunder's charter plane from Los Angeles was scheduled to arrive around 4:15 a.m. Sunday, but instead landed an hour late after circling due to high winds in the area.
An estimated 500 fans braved the elements and the early hour to greet the team.
After sweeping Dallas in the first round, an estimated 1,500 greeted the Thunder at the airport around midnight.
Brooks and his players have grown accustomed to these welcoming committees, but Sunday caught some off-guard given the lateness (earliness?) and weather.
“This time, I was surprised,” Brooks said. “It's incredible. It's incredible the support our players receive. They're thankful. They love it. … It's fun to see. It's exciting times. … And it was late. Or is that early?”
LONG TIME AGO
Until Saturday night's 13-point comeback in the final 8:02 by the Thunder, the Lakers had not lost a home playoff game when leading by nine or more points entering the fourth quarter since 1983, according to TNT.
That was the game in which the Philadelphia 76ers, led by All-Star point guard and Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, completed their sweep over the Lakers in the NBA Finals by outscoring LA 33-15 in the final quarter at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
Cheeks finished with 20 points, seven assists and two steals in the 115-108 victory.
Brooks was at a loss for words after Game 4 to explain exactly how his team came back against the Lakers.
“I don't know if we learned anything, other than we already knew you have to play 48 minutes,” Brooks said. “We have that never-quit mentality. It's great to have. It's great to coach. It's great to be around. There were times (Saturday) night when things did not look good. They had everything going for them early. Making shots. Getting stops. We just seemed like a step slow, but we came back and fought. We made it close with our defense and that's what we've done all year.”
Perkins is not a big fan of Gasol — What is it you don't like about Gasol? “Everything,” Perkins has said — but he continually heaps praise upon Bynum, who early in Game 4 showed how dominating he can be.
In the first quarter, Bynum had 10 points, three rebounds, three assists, one steal, one block and shot 5 for 5 from the field.
Bynum was 7 for 8 from the field at one point before having a shot blocked by Perkins and another blocked by Durant.
In the first half, Bynum had 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and steal. In the second half, he had four points, two rebounds, one steal and one block.
“Bynum, he's a big guy who can hold his spot on the low post, and it's not easy fronting him,” Brooks said of defending the 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum. “Everybody has to be locked in and on the same page (defensively), because if you make one mistake, it's a layup. If we have one breakdown, it takes an incredible effort by Serge to block a shot, or Nick to take a charge, or Russell to get a steal.”
The shot that started the Thunder's fourth-quarter comeback was a 3-pointer in the left corner from Fisher, a former Lakers point guard who was cheered by three-fourths of the Lakers fans at Staples Center and booed by the others.
“That's what he does. That's who he is,” Brooks said of the 37-year-old Fisher. “He loves the game, he has passion for the game and he's a winner. I can never emphasize that enough. He's a winner and you can never have enough of those on your team. That shot (to make he score 91-81) was huge. His leadership, you can't put a win total on it, but you know the effect it's having on our guys. He talks. He communicates. He's a great leader.”
Brooks, after the team charter had to circle an hour before landing due to high winds: “It wasn't good for my stomach. You could throw me on a swing and I'm going to get sick.”