SAN ANTONIO — For lo these many years, Scott Brooks has been the captain of the Good Ship Lollipop, the gatekeeper to the Magic Kingdom, the mayor of Happy Place.
Even as great minds and certifiable dimwits and everyone in between second guessed his offense, his substitutions and his ability to lead his team to a title, the Thunder coach has given Norman Vincent Peale a run for his money for the better part of six years.
But now, Mr. Positive has gotten edgy. Snippy, even.
In these Western Conference Finals alone, he’s snapped a few times in press conferences, which frankly still makes him the second-snippiest head coach in this series. The thing is, we expect snark out of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. That’s how he is. I suspect it’s more shtick than reality, but hey, whatever flips your pancake.
But Brooks? Even being a wee bit testy is out of character, and Brooks has even taken to regularly referencing criticism that he’s received.
“I’m competitive just like all the other coaches in this league,” he said. “I want our guys to have success as much as any other coach in this league.”
No one has ever questioned Brooks’ competitiveness. He was a 5-foot-11 guard who spent a decade playing in the NBA. He had to have fangs to hang around that long.
But as a coach, he hasn’t shown those teeth until recently. There a few examples in the last two game alone. Sunday night after Game 3, Brooks was asked if he’d continue to start Reggie Jackson, who’d scored 15 points and added four rebounds and five assists.
“What do you think?” Brooks snipped.
Then Tuesday night after Game 4, when asked a neutral question about Jackson’s twisted ankle, Brooks said, “I didn’t want to make a change in the lineup to get ridiculed.”
But asked about his recent edginess, Brooks pulled a Brooks and apologized.
“I don’t feel it,” he said Wednesday. “If I offend you, I’m sorry.”
No offense here, Coach. If anything, I’m not sure why the ire wasn’t raised sooner, why the edginess took so long.
The only reason every problem with the Thunder isn’t Brooks’ fault is because of Kendrick Perkins and Russell Westbrook. Deserved or not, those three are blamed for pretty much every ill that befalls this team. Over the years, that constant criticism has turned Westbrook into one of the surliest athletes in sports. Perk has somehow managed to largely remain a downhome fellow.
And Brooks? He seems to get more positive as things get worse.
Granted, some of the criticism is fair. There are times when in-game adjustments are lacking and the late-game offense goes stagnant. But look at the big picture, and all that Brooks has done over the past six seasons is lead his team to better and better records. The Thunder has gone from 23 wins in 2008-09, when Brooks served most of the season as the interim head coach, to 50 wins, then 55, then 47 in a lockout-shorted season, then 60, then 59.
Even though this was the first season in several that the Thunder didn’t win more regular-season games than the season before, you could argue that this was Brooks’ best coaching job. His team went much of the year without Westbrook, one of the best players on the planet, and was without two mainstays, Perk and Thabo Sefolosha, for the last six weeks or so.
And the Thunder still won 59 games and finished second in the highly competitive Western Conference.
But when the Thunder faced an early hole against Memphis in the first round of the playoffs, there were several national pundits ready to fire Brooks and numerous Thunder fans offering to sharpen the blade on the guillotine.
The same thing happened in the second round when the Thunder trailed the Clippers.
And in these conference finals when the Thunder trailed the Spurs.
Yet every time that the Thunder has rallied — it heads back to San Antonio on Thursday night with a chance to put a stranglehold on this series — every iota of the credit is given to the players. The narrative goes that the Thunder turns it around because of its superior talent. Kevin Durant and Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are just that good.
Question to everyone who espouses that belief: who developed those guys’ talent?
Yes, all of those players are extremely gifted, but each of them is way better now than when they entered the league. That’s not because of magic. That’s because of a system that develops players as well as any team in the league.
It’s a system overseen by Scott Brooks.
“He’s one of those coaches … that loves to see the progression of players and enjoys coaching,” Durant said.
Durant recognizes that the basketball world doesn’t give Brooks enough credit for what he does. He said as much in his MVP acceptance speech a few weeks back.
“I never met anybody like you, so selfless,” Durant said then. “You don’t take the credit for nothing, even though you deserve all of it.”
All of it? Maybe not.
But more than he gets? Absolutely.
Just look at these past couple games. Everyone is pointing to the return of Ibaka as the reason that the Thunder has turned around this series. Largely ignored is Brooks’ decision to bench Sefolosha and replace him with Jackson. That move has helped spread the floor on the offensive end, creating more space for Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka while giving the Spurs another facilitator for whom they have to account.
And that lineup has been spectacular, whether you judge with advanced analytics (150.4 points per 100 possessions in that first game together) or with the eye test.
Brooks is getting almost no credit for that lineup switch, though. If anything, people are saying, “What took you so long?”
It has to be a little maddening for Brooks, who reads at least some of what is written about his team. Everyone wants him to bench Perk. Or try Perry Jones. Or corral Westbrook. Or start Jeremy Lamb.
Only recently has Brooks started to show signs that some of that might be getting to him. No longer does he have the dad-down-the-street persona, wearing a wrist full of friendship bracelets and seeming way more likely to offer orange slices than criticism to his team.
He even tried to smooth things over Wednesday afternoon over his comment about not wanting to get ridiculed for a lineup change, insisting it was a joke.
“That was my bad sense of humor,” he said. “It’s a little dry at times. That was a joke. For those of you that didn’t think that was a joke, I’m sorry for you guys.”
Joke or not, Dr. Feel Good has an edge to him.
“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “We are fighting for something special, and we feel that we have a great opportunity. If it’s coming across as edgy … ”
No apologies offered.
No apologies needed.
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.