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Oklahoma City Thunder: What is Scott Brooks' next move in this game of chess?

These Western Conference Finals so far are known not just for runaway victories by the home team in all five games but lineup changes by coaches who like to downplay their import.
by Berry Tramel Published: May 30, 2014

Your move, Scotty Brooks.

These Western Conference Finals so far are known not just for runaway victories by the home team in all five games but lineup changes by coaches who like to downplay their import.

It’s not about some kind of O or X, Gregg Popovich said Friday. Some 464 miles north, Scotty Brooks said much the same thing, that the X’s and the O’s are thrown out the window.

But they don’t really believe that, else Matt Bonner, and not Thabo Sefolosha, would be in mothballs.

Maybe strategy and matchups were minor details when Serge Ibaka was out and the Thunder seemed destined to fall quickly at the hands of the Spurs. But not now. Not since Ibaka’s return reignited the Thunder and made this a who-knows series.

OK, so it’s not X’s and O’s, not tic-tac-toe. But it is chess. Thunder moves, Spurs move. Thunder moves, Spurs move. This series has become a battle of wits and new-look lineups.

For Game 3, Brooks benched Sefolosha, his trusty defender, who had started 367 straight Thunder games in which he had been healthy, going into these playoffs. Brooks had done the same to Thabo for the final two games of the Memphis series, in favor of Caron Butler. This time, it was sixth man Reggie Jackson who was added to the lineup. The results were spectacular. Two straight Thunder routs.

For Game 5, Popovich responded by starting Bonner, who had made 16 starts the previous five years, and Pop continued the downsizing by playing Boris Diaw extensively instead of center Tiago Splitter. The Spurs won by 28.

Now with the season on the line, it’s Brooks’ turn, either in Game 6 Saturday night or, should the Thunder survive without major adjustments, in Game 7 in San Antonio, where the Thunder has been non-competitive in three games of this series.

“I think every series you have wrinkles that you put in,” Brooks said. “Some of them were very subtle that a lot of people don't see. You have to be able to change things up on whether it's a scheme or a particular play that we run. We know their plays, they know our plays, and we just have to be able to execute with maximum effort to give ourselves a chance to get a stop. That's what it comes down to.”

But that’s the point. Those lineup changes have helped execution.

Jackson’s insertion into the starting lineup relieved pressure off Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder no longer provides the Spurs a place to hide defensively deficient Tony Parker. Parker has to cover Jackson. The defensive requirements mounted on every Spur.

Increased roles for Bonner and Diaw meant Ibaka’s defensive responsibilities took him farther from the basket, opening driving lanes and limiting Ibaka’s shot-blocking opportunities.

“But it's more about on that particular night who plays well and who is the aggressor rather than some kind of an O or X,” Popovich said.

Pop doesn’t really believe that, else he never would have started Bonner, who can’t really defend anyone and who long ago fell out of the San Antonio rotation. Brooks doesn’t believe it, either. He’s already shown himself capable of making serious changes in mid-series. So what are Brooks’ options for these two games the Thunder must have to extend its season? Here are three:

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by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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