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.