Second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, guard Danny Green and center Tiago Splitter all are having career years, showing improvement across the board. Last year's series flipped when that trio vanished and left stars Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan to do all the work. Parker was bottled up by Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder's supporting cast stepped up and it suddenly became a seven-on-two series the rest of the way. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich actually had to bench Splitter and Green in the final few games.
But those were lessons they learned from and are believed to have gotten better because of. This year, while Brooks has kept the training wheels attached to younger players like Reggie Jackson, the Spurs have been busy preparing for more playoff battles.
When the Spurs lost on a buzzer-beater at Memphis on Monday, the second time in as many nights they fell in that fashion, Popovich didn't panic. He instead looked to the future and figured it would help. San Antonio went on the road without the help of Ginobili, Duncan and Leonard, three of its best four players, and took a tough-nosed Grizzlies squad down to the wire.
“If they have the character I know they have, this is all going in the computer,” Popovich told reporters after the Grizzlies loss. “It will make them smarter and make them make the right decisions come playoff time hopefully.”
That could be the Thunder's worst nightmare.
“You can just tell they're just playing with more confidence,” Brooks said of San Antonio's role players. “They do a great job of developing their players, and they don't get enough credit for it.”
Which is why winning home-court advantage could be so pivotal to the Thunder.
Role players historically perform better at home as opposed to on the road. Last year, Leonard, Green and Splitter combined to average 20.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the Spurs' three conference finals home games. They mustered just 11.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and two assists in Oklahoma City. Some of the drop-off was a result of Splitter and Green being benched. But their benching also was a byproduct of their drop-off.
Given all that has changed since June, grabbing home-court advantage ultimately could be the Thunder's saving grace in a potential rematch with the Spurs.
And this final meeting Thursday night very well could be the contest that decides it.