HOUSTON — Scotty Brooks has coached the Thunder to five playoff series victories in the last 24 months.
That's as many as Rick Adelman has produced in the last dozen years. That's as many as Mike D'Antoni has won in his career, and the Lakers were impressed enough to hand him the keys to the kingdom.
That's more than Byron Scott (four) has won in the last 11 years. More than Avery Johnson has won in his career. More than George Karl has won in 15 years.
So Brooks, 4 1/2 years into his NBA coaching career, is building quite the resume'.
But Brooks' coaching reputation is on the line as this remade Thunder-Rockets series hits the homestretch, with Game 6 Friday night at the Toyota Center and a Game 7 Sunday back in Oklahoma City should the Rockets survive. Brooks does not want to coach the first team in NBA history to lose a series after leading three games to none.
Kevin McHale, a heck of a forward in his Celtic days but innocuous in 242 regular-season games as a coach, is making all the right moves in keeping his Rockets kicking. The Rockets we saw in Game 1 12 days ago is nothing like the Rockets we saw in Game 5 Wednesday night.
The Thunder is changed, too, by Russell Westbrook's injury. The Thunder has won once without Westbrook and dang near won another, but there's been nothing easy about it.
And it's up to Brooks to do something.
He already has let his hair down. Three minutes into Game 4, Brooks inserted DeAndre Liggins, calling the defensive specialist not so much from the end of the bench as oblivion.
But that's not enough against these Rockets. Desperate teams cause for desperate measures.
McHale has taken to playing water bug point guards Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks together, with James Harden, who plays like a point much of the time. McHale has brought Francisco Garcia out of mothballs; a guy who played six minutes in Game 2 has become Kevin Durant's nightmare.
Here's what we've learned through five games of Thunder-Rockets. Playoff basketball is not like February basketball. In the postseason, teams grow to know and despise each other. Basketball savvy minds find every flaw in the opponent and try to expose it.
Brooks must counter. Both in strategy and in personnel.
“Everything is being considered, there's no question,” Brooks said.
That's good to know. Without Westbrook, Brooks' perimeter options are thinned. But Liggins clearly has to play more. The Thunder has got to stop the Rocket launchers, and you stop them by turning back the penetrators. Liggins helps mightily on Chandler Parsons and Harden.
Thabo Sefolosha otherwise will wear down. He's carrying a defensive load the way Durant is carrying an offensive load.
And Nick Collison has to play more. Brooks has made more adjustments than he's given credit for in this series. He's gone with the small lineup two thirds of the time since losing Westbrook. That's progress.
But Collison has been the victim. He's played barely 36 minutes in the last three games, but the Thunder has outscored Houston 82-66 with Collison on the court as the lone big man. Serge Ibaka has played 65 minutes solo, with the Thunder outscoring Houston 142-141. Kendrick Perkins has played less than seven minutes as the lone big man.
Against some teams, Collison just makes things move more smoothly, offense and defense. Looks like Houston's one of those teams.
And Brooks has to get to the small lineup sooner. The Thunder has started slowly in each of the last four halves: down 13-4 after four minutes of Game 4, outscored 10-0 to start the second half of Game 4, down 16-9 after five minutes in Game 5 and outscored 16-7 to start the second half of Game 5.
Bail on the big lineup. If Brooks feels the need to keep the starting lineup intact, fine. That's a political deal. Might be more trouble than its worth to change. Brooks' coaching genius is not strategy so much as juggling egos and personalities. Lots of guys can draw up cool plays. Few can keep Perk and Westbrook and the gang rowing the same boat.
So start Perkins, if necessary. But bail quickly. And by all means don't start the second half with the big lineup. You can't have Ibaka chasing around Parsons or Harden, 25 feet from the basket. The Thunder has got to start guarding the Rockets.
“We cannot give them confidence to start the game,” Durant said.
Brooks is loathe to make major changes. Not since November 2008, when Westbrook was made the Thunder point guard, has Brooks changed his starting lineup for any reason other than injury or trade.
And it's worked famously. The Thunder is an overwhelming success story, which is why Brooks' coaching pedigree has zoomed. But the next day or three are the biggest challenge of his career.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.