SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS — At this very moment, I’m in route to Houston for Game 6, a game that never should have seen the light of day.
As I type this, I’m riding in the backseat of a car, spread out with my shoes off and my legs kicked up. Our man John Rohde is captaining this chic Chrysler 300C. Berry Tramel is riding shotgun. We’re about 100 miles outside of H-Town. And because we’re trapped in a car for eight hours, forced to again travel a road we thought we left in the rear-view mirror, much of our conversation has centered on how we got here and how the Thunder can get out.
And so we did what all good hacks do. We played armchair quarterbacks. We put on our thinking caps and turned into coaches for a car ride.
You could call me Mo Cheeks. Let’s say Tramel was Rex Kalamaian. Rohde played the role of Scott Brooks (more on that in a bit).
Needless to say, things got a little interesting.
It started when I floated this bold prediction: Scott Brooks will change his starting lineup for Game 6!!
Yeah, the way I sat up and declared it required not one but two exclamations. The prediction is a bold one because Brooks, of course, has almost never voluntarily changed his starting five. Injuries have brought change. So have trades. But Brooks hasn’t made the decision to do it since inserting Russell Westbrook into the starting unit five games into his coaching career.
That decision came way back on Nov. 29, 2008.
So after 4 1/2 years, the time has come.
In order for the Thunder to finally closeout this closer-than-expected series Brooks will have to bite the bullet and step out of his beloved routine.
Brooks will have to start DeAndre Liggins.
I know. I know. I’m not the most objective when it comes to Liggins. But stay with me.
Houston has controlled this series since the second half of Game 2. It was that game that the Rockets went small, began dictating matchups and playing fast and free. It’s been a dogfight for the Thunder ever since. No game has been worse than what we saw Wednesday, when the Rockets walked into Chesapeake Energy Arena and dominated from start to finish, leading by as many as 16 before pulling within 3-2 in this best-of-seven series.
Now, without Russell Westbrook, the Thunder not only cannot score against the Rockets, but OKC also can’t stop them from scoring, either. Something has to be done.
The dilemma, like all that Brooks is faced with, is multi-layered. There are egos in play, minutes that must both be sacrificed and effectively made up, rhythms that risk being knocked out of whack and, ultimately, pride that must be swallowed.
But the alternative is bowing out of these playoffs in embarrassing fashion. No team in NBA playoff history has lost a series after jumping to a 3-0 lead. The Thunder headed to Houston this afternoon halfway home to becoming the first.
So the question is not if the Thunder will change its starting lineup but when. It’s possible the Thunder goes into Friday night’s game with the same starting five, in which case my prediction would be wrong. But if the Thunder loses Game 6 you can bet Brooks abandons his fave five for the win-or-go-home Game 7.
So who will Liggins replace?
My money is on Serge Ibaka.
Contrary to popular belief, Kendrick Perkins has value in this series. He’s the only big man the Thunder has who can combat Rockets center Omer Asik. Perkins, for the most part, has helped keep Asik off the boards, out of the paint as a put-back machine and quiet as a roller to the basket. Asik is averaging fewer points, rebounds and blocked shots while Perkins is on the court, according to NBA.com/stats, as well as shooting a lower percentage.
Additionally, personalities mandate that Perk remain in the starting lineup. Brooks can sit an up-and-coming fourth-year player like Ibaka much more easily than he can a champion like Perk. And frankly, Ibaka is likely to take the altered role better, too. With Perk, you never know if you’re going to lose him.
From a basketball standpoint, Ibaka has hurt the Thunder at the start of games more than he’s helped in the last two games. He’s been unable to punish the Rockets inside with rebounds, shot-blocking or paint points. Despite playing all but 1 1/2 minutes of the past two opening quarters, Ibaka has scored only 10 points with five rebounds and three blocked shots. Meanwhile, he’s been forced to defend on the perimeter. Thanks to the Thunder’s non-stop switching, Ibaka has found himself on everyone from James Harden to Chandler Parsons to Francisco Garcia. It’s been a losing recipe, similar to what we witnessed last June, when Ibaka irrationally was chasing around Shane Battier on the perimeter in the Finals. It’s no coincidence that Garcia and Parsons have combined to score 25 points on 7-for-13 shooting from 3-point range in the last two first quarters.
Liggins is the linchpin or, at the very least, the lesser of all evils.
The Thunder needs Liggins’ athleticism and defensive disposition on the perimeter. He showed Monday in Game 4 and again in Game 5 that he can defend Harden and Parsons and Beverley and Aaron Brooks. With Liggins, the Thunder has a better chance of matching up in transition while also having the potential to be more effective on switches.
Tramel, aka coach Kalamian, agreed with the idea. He just wasn’t sure about an all-out change. Our shotgun-riding assistant felt that a change was needed but perhaps there was a way to implement it without stepping on toes. Tramel said playing small more is absolutely necessary but floated the idea of keeping the starting lineup intact but subbing Perk out earlier. Brooks, or in this case Rohde, seemed intrigued but not sold.
That’s when I pointed out the start of the last four halves and offered a reminder of the perils of sticking with the status quo. Those first few minutes of each half have proven to be most critical. That’s when the Thunder has truly gotten blitzed, having been outscored 49-23 over the first five minutes of each of the last four halves. Even a three-minute stint of the same ol’, same ol’ is too risky.
Brooks (Rohde) nodded in agreement. Then he conceded.
He told me he’s not arguing against my logic and that it makes all the sense in the world.
But it’s not happening, he said.
As I sat back, dejectedly slumping deeper into my roomy backseat, a strange feeling washed over me.
Within seconds, it hit me.
This must be what it feels like to be Mo Cheeks.