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:
1. Play a small lineup with Ibaka at center. Brooks often uses a lineup with with Durant at power forward. But in the 71/2 minutes Brooks used the small lineup in Game 5, he always had Kendrick Perkins or Steven Adams in the game. But if Ibaka is the center, he would be on Tim Duncan, not chasing anyone past the 3-point line and thus positioned to better protect the paint.
Such a lineup puts some stress on Durant, who would have to deal with the burly and creative Diaw in the post, but Durant’s interior defense has shown itself to get better the longer the game goes. He’s guarded Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan for stretches of these playoffs. Don’t be scared of Boris Diaw.
Heck, such a move could have residual benefits. Durant might save some energy, not chasing a perimeter around screens for 20 seconds a possession.
2. Bring back Sefolosha from exile. Not to start, but to guard Manu Ginobili off the bench.
The Thunder is having a terrible time defending Ginobili, who absolutely torched Jackson in a 51/2-minute span of Game 5’s second quarter, with nine points on 4-of-4 shooting. That’s when the game got away from the Thunder.
When he was benched, Thabo was in a defensive slump as well as an offensive slump. I don’t know if Sefolosha can slow down Ginobili. But I’d find out.
3. Play Russell Westbrook more.
Funny, how all we hear from Brooks is that Westbrook is tireless. As fresh-legged in the fourth quarter as he is in the first. And we see nothing in Westbrook’s play to dispute that.
And yet, even before the knee injury of last spring and resting Westbrook for precautionary reasons this season, Westbrook always played less than did Durant. In big games or playoff games, Durant routinely has played 45 minutes. Westbrook often dips under 40 minutes.
I’d stop that. Play Westbrook the whole game, unless you need to remove him for instruction or to settle him down.
The Thunder bench can be spotty since Jackson began starting. The Thunder lost a comfortable first-quarter lead in Game 5 when Brooks began substituting. I don’t know if the Thunder can afford to sub much in back-to-back must-win games.
When Brooks goes to his bench, make sure Durant or Westbrook are on the court, too, and preferably both.
“A lot of times late in the series, you know each other's personalities, you know each other's game, and the Xs and Os are thrown out the window,” Brooks said. “It's about coming with sheer determination to outplay your opponent by outworking them, by outplaying them, by out‑toughing them. We have to play with toughness for 48 minutes.”
You want 48 minutes of toughness? Play Russell Westbrook for 48 minutes.
Make Gregg Popovich respond to that.
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.