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.