Time was, the Thunder starting five was an Oklahoma City institution. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha were more venerable than the B.C. Clark Christmas jingle. More dependable than Arts Festival rain. You’d sooner find sushi at Cattleman’s than one of those five on the bench.
But the Thunder playoff run of 2014 turned serious weeks ago. Scotty Brooks started Caron Butler in place of Thabo Sefolosha for must-win Games 6 and 7 of the Memphis series, then Foreman Scotty started Reggie Jackson for Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
Both moves worked out famously. The Thunder swept those final two games from the Grizzlies and popped the Spurs on Sunday night.
Not pleasant moves to make. But moves that had to be made.
The Thunder is growing up as a team. The Boomers no longer are the whiz kids of 2012, a team of 23- and 22-year-olds storming to the NBA Finals. The Thunder coach has grown up, too. That’s what adulthood is all about. Making tough decisions.
“Yeah, it's a major decision,” Brooks admitted. “We've been successful. I get knocked as a coach that we don't make changes … we've won a lot of games doing that. But there’s times that we have to change in a series. I think our guys have adjusted well the last two times we've done it. We might have to do it again.”
It’s fair to knock Brooks for failure to change in the 2012 Finals, when Perkins averaged 23.2 minutes a game even though Miami offered no one for the defensive specialist to guard. Back then, Brooks wouldn’t budge come Heat or high water.
Two years later, the Thunder is a little more hard-wired. A little more edgy. A little more streetwise on the ups and downs of NBA contention. Nothing is assured. Nothing is guaranteed.
So if Thabo, who was so valuable in raising the Thunder from bad to good with his arrival in February 2009, or Perk, who was the same in raising the Thunder from good to great with his arrival two years later, have to be demoted, so be it.
Nick Collison, an original Thunder, said Brooks has “got a really good feel what everybody can do out there. We’ve had a lot of continuity here. He’s had Reggie for three years. Myself for six, seven. Thabo for six. He’s making moves because he feels like he can plug guys in.
“Plus he’s got faith that we’re a mature group, and guys can handle it. If they get sat, they get sat. They understand he’s doing what he thinks is best to win.”
Thabo went from starting to not even playing against Memphis – two straight games without getting off the bench. Then Sefolosha started all six games against the Clippers. So despite another DID NOT PLAY-coaches decision Sunday night, don’t write off Thabo. He could return.
But Brooks’ decisions in these playoffs seem to portend a change. It’s not likely that Sefolosha, whose contract expires this summer, will be back next season. Brooks’ sudden propensity for change makes it much more likely that Steven Adams will be the starting center next season. The times, they are a-changin’.
Butler downplayed the moves. “Just an adjustment,” he said. “Playoff basketball is about a ton of adjustments. Coach Brooks made an adjustment in the Memphis series, and we made one in this one, as well.”
Maybe so. But Butler hasn’t been around for decade after decade of “Most sales are after Christmas, but Clark’s is just before.” Hasn’t been around for season after season of Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-Perkins-Sefolosha. These lineup changes were no small decisions.
That’s why Brooks wouldn’t even talk about the process. Didn’t want to divulge how he broke the news to Sefolosha.
Brooks told Jackson at Monday morning shootaround. Stood on the court while Jackson was idly warming up and told him he’d be starting. To stick with Danny Green on the 3-point line and be aggressive offensively. Missions mostly accomplished.
Jackson preferred to deflect talk of success away from himself.
“It's just a testament to Thabo being able to step back for the team,” Jackson said. “I know it was hard on him, especially didn't get a chance to play last night. We still expect him to come in and contribute and do what he does, lock up defensively, really be major for our defense and then knock down the long ball. I'm sure he's still ready to play, but I don't know why it worked so well. We probably just give all the credit to Serge. I'm cool with that.”
Well, yes. Everyone looked better with Ibaka back on the court. But there was no such triumphant return for Memphis Game 6, and everything looked better there, too.
“I think it’s that understanding, being a mature player, being a pro, all you can really control is how you play,” Collison said. “You can’t change what the coach decides to do. And you have to be ready when it’s your time. I think that’s a good thing about our team. We’ve got mature guys. Our goal is to win a championship.”
That’s Brooks’ goal, too. Now more than ever. Which is why a sacred Oklahoma City institution is no more.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . 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.