With their backs against the wall on Thursday night, the Thunder played differently. The defensive rotations were crisper, the ball movement more fluid, the energy explosive from start to finish.
But in the crucial 104-84 blowout win, the Thunder also coached differently. And that was just as important.
Facing elimination, Scott Brooks made the type of adjustments he’s long been hesitant to pull.
And it started with the starting lineup.
Without even hinting at it the past 48 hours, Brooks surprised the basketball world right before tip-off, benching lineup mainstay Thabo Sefolosha and replacing him with Caron Butler. It was his first strategic starting lineup change – due to neither injury nor trade – since his first year, when he replaced Earl Watson with Russell Westbrook .
It paid immediate dividends.
Butler’s presence infused an extra 3-point threat into the mix. During a dominant start to the game – a 19-8 Thunder lead seven minutes in – Butler hit a three. But more importantly, he improved the spacing, allowing both Durant and Russell Westbrook more room to operate and find an immediate rhythm.
Durant had 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the first quarter. The Thunder cruised from there.
“Energy, defensive disposition,” Butler said when asked what he brought to the starting lineup. “An edge, attitude and just a will to not lose tonight.”
At one point early in the third – after another Butler three – Marc Gasol barked at Zach Randolph. “I told you not to help,” Gasol said. Randolph was forced into guarding Butler and was clearly out of his comfort zone.
“We spread ‘em out a little bit,” Durant said.
“I felt like that gave us a good chance to win today,” Brooks said of the lineup change, revealing that he would stick with it moving forward.
But his impactful adjustments weren’t limited to that pregame move. Brooks was great throughout. He divvied up the minutes beautifully, carving out as much small ball as possible and reinserting the energetic Steven Adams into the rotation.
Adams got 20 minutes, 11 more than he had the previous four games combined. And the rookie delivered, blocking five shots and wrecking havoc all over the court.
“I thought he did a great job, just coming in and using his size,” Westbrook said. “He was athletic, running the floor, blocking shots, rebounding.”
One of Brooks’ biggest rotation blunders, at times, has been his willingness to sit both Durant and Westbrook at the start of the second or fourth quarters. In the regular season, maybe, but in the playoffs, it seems wise to always have one of those playmakers leading the offense.
But to start the fourth quarter on Thursday night, even up 21, Brooks kept both his superstars on the court. He didn’t worry about routine. He just went for the kill And it worked.
Durant and Westbrook fought off the Grizzlies final run and, still up 21, exited the game for good with three minutes left.
And that’s when Brooks capped his banner night with a fitting salute to Thunder fans everywhere, subbing in popular reserve Jeremy Lamb as the victory cigar to what was one of the best games of his coaching career.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time.