MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Scotty Brooks and his players say they are not listening to the noise. OK. But are his players still listening to Brooks?
Suddenly, that’s a valid question as the Thunder approaches Game 4 of its Western Conference grind-off with the Memphis Grizzlies. With every 3-pointer jacked up by Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, with every Thunder possession in which the Spalding touches no other hands than those of the Durantula and Spiderman, with every easy basket scored by Beno Udrih, the doubt mounts about this Thunder season and Brooks’ hold on this team.
I don’t think the Thunder will fire Brooks, no matter how this series and this season plays out. The Thunder is not a reactionary organization. The Thunder doesn’t make rash decisions. Doesn’t give in to popular demand. But a first-round exit to Memphis would bring Brooks to the hot seat for the first time in his six seasons as the Thunder coach.
Every coach this side of Gregg Popovich has seasons to his career. The right fit for several years doesn’t mean the right fit forever. NBA coaching is not a lifetime appointment. The right coach for Westbrook and Durant as 20-year-olds isn’t automatically the right coach for Westbrook and Durant as 26-year-olds. Might be. Could be. But not automatically will be.
Sometimes players tune out a voice. They’ve heard it before. It’s not personal. It’s almost natural. Pastors, teachers, politicians, marital partners. All kinds of people get tuned out over time. Why should coaches be different?
“Obviously, I think they listen to me,” Brooks said after practice Friday at FedEx Forum. “We’re like family. Family, you’re going to have some ups, you’re going to have some downs. But you have to stay together. We have a group that believes in one another, has been together for awhile. Hopefully we can rally around each other tomorrow night and get a win.”
The criticism of Brooks’ strategy is silly. The NBA is not a game of X’s and O’s. It’s a game of focus and motivation. Brooks’ job is not to outfox Memphis counterpart Dave Joerger. Brooks’ job is to get his own team to play smart, to play hard and to play together.
And Brooks has been very good at that job. NBA coaching is not like coaching in college. College basketball is autocratic. My way or the highway. Do as I say, no questions asked. That’s not the way it is in the NBA, except maybe with a Popovich or a Doc Rivers. NBA coaches serve at the leisure of their stars.
Durant, particularly, and Westbrook could have their coach’s head by sundown. That’s just the simple truth of pro basketball, even in an organization like the Thunder that embraces culture and commitment. Brooks needs the cooperation of his stars and his veterans.
Which is why Ray Westbrook’s tweet was so interesting during the third quarter of Game 3 Thursday night. Russell’s little brother told the world the Thunder needed a coaching change. The Westbrooks are tight, and this was one of the first cracks in Thunder solidarity, even if it came from the fringes.
Friday, Russell was in a combative mood about the Thunder’s play, but he lost the attitude when asked about his brother’s tweet. Russ came to his coach’s defense and quick.
“I took care of that, man,” Westbrook said. “We don’t conduct business like that. Me and Scotty got a great relationship. I’ve never once mentioned that I want Scotty to leave here ever since I’ve been here. We created a bond with each other that’s grown and got older with.”
It’s madness, when you think about it. Brooks has nurtured Westbrook into one of the NBA’s best players, warts and all, and defended his point guard from all comers. The definition of irony is someone from the Westbrook camp calling for Scotty Brooks’ job.
A more strong-willed coach might rein in Westbrook’s shoddy shot selection. He also could run Westbrook out of Oklahoma City, and let me promise you, finding coaches are a lot easier than finding Russell Westbrooks.
On the streets of Memphis early Friday morning, Ray Westbrook stood by his tweet. “That’s how I feel,” he said. “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me (on Twitter).”
Shows you how difficult Brooks’ job is. Not only do you juggle Russell Westbrook personalities, you might have to navigate Ray Westbrook nonsense.
“I did hear about it,” Brooks said. “It didn’t bother me. I’ve got a lot of things to worry about, and that’s not one of ’em. That has nothing to do with me or what I think day to day. I’m focused on our guys. Just focused on Game 4.”
Durant is the most important man in the organization, behind only Sam Presti, and if you want to flip those rankings, I won’t argue. Durant said criticism of Brooks doesn’t matter, whether it’s coming from ESPN’s Bill Simmons or Thunder fans or his point guard’s brother.
“We don’t worry about that stuff,” Durant said. “Everything we can control is internally. That’s all we focus on. Outside noise from the media, from fans, from family and friends, we just know it’s going to come, it’s a part of it, but we just try to dodge that, not worry about that, just focus on the group. A lot of different people have opinions, including you guys. We just let it go in one ear and out the other.”
Fair enough. But if these Boomers like their coach, they won’t have that in-and-out philosophy when he talks. Brooks knows basketball. He knows what the Thunder has to do. Just because he doesn’t toss his players under the bus publicly doesn’t mean he hasn’t popped them behind closed doors.
Brooks is telling these guys what to do. The question is, are they listening? Losing to the Grizzlies would not cost Brooks one of the best jobs in basketball. But losing his players’ ears would.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.