Scott Brooks received his first lesson in coaching rotations as a rookie with Philadelphia in 1988. It was then-Sixers coach Jim Lynam who provided the blueprint for what ultimately would mold how Brooks now manages the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“He told me early on, and it remained with me as part of my fabric, “Your job is to come in and do your job,'” Brooks remembered. “It was just so simple, but it was kind of profound.”
Back then, Brooks was clawing to survive as an improbable backup point guard out of University of California-Irvine. The man in front of Brooks was Maurice Cheeks, now Brooks' lead assistant but then an NBA champion, a four-time All-Star and a five-time All-Defensive Team selection by the time Brooks had arrived.
“I never had an issue,” Brooks said. “I knew my role. I knew Maurice was better than me.”
Today, Brooks expects his bench to share a similar attitude.
“Some players feel if you score 10 straight points you should play the rest of the game,” Brooks said. “But I don't feel that way. Your job is to come in and do your job. And, yes, you will get some extended minutes. But the bench guys have to just do their job.”
It's that philosophy that has helped the Thunder's bench blossom into one of the best in the league. It's not the most skilled group in the league, but it's one that has a collection of players committed to just falling in line and figuring out ways to help the team win.
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins called the Thunder's bench the key to Oklahoma City's Game 2 win over his Grizzlies. Led by James Harden's 21 points, the Thunder's bench outscored the Grizzlies' 48-29. OKC's reserves out-rebounded Memphis' 15-10, had an 8-5 advantage in assists and an 8-3 margin in steals.
Now, as the series shifts to Memphis for Games 3 and 4, the question is can the Thunder's role players travel? Can they take their confidence and chemistry and all the successful sacrifices they've made this season to Memphis and supply significant contributions inside FedExForum? It could be imperative to stealing a win on the road and regaining home-court advantage in this best-of-7 series.
“We're going to need all the guys to play well,” Brooks said, “the starters, the bench, and maybe a guy who hasn't played much might have an opportunity to have an impact in a game or in a quarter.”
Brooks has put his bench unit in position to rise to the occasion. The coach's management of the rotation has been an overlooked and underwritten story of this season.
Once branded as a coach who refused to adapt, Brooks has quickly and, somehow, rather quietly become more amiable to adjustments. He moved from his rigid nine-man rotation to a 10-man unit in the weeks following the midseason trade that beefed up the Thunder's roster with centers Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. And he showed in Game 2 that his substitution patterns aren't always so mechanical that he refuses to ride the man with the hot hand.