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.
“I believe in our bench. I believe in our guys. That's how I coach,” Brooks said. “I believe that's the best way to coach this group of guys, keep instilling confidence in them.”
Brooks has yet to come up short in finding new ways to infuse confidence. He's been doing it all year. Perhaps most of us were just too stubborn to see it.
When Brooks stuck with a rigid rotation and set minutes, he wasn't only seeking to boost confidence, he was aiming to improve his reserves' rhythm. By having clear patterns, Brooks believes, bench players know exactly when they're entering the game, what they must do when they check in and how long they have to do it. The style also helped build chemistry in the second unit.
As taught to him by coaches like Lynam, Brooks has managed reserves' minutes by giving three players, Harden, Eric Maynor and Nick Collison, consistent playing time and two others, Daequan Cook and Nazr Mohammed, which Brooks calls “wild cards,” playing time depending on the flow of the game.
“You get a rhythm with how your teammate plays, what plays he likes, the little tricks you can use within the sets,” Brooks said.
That chemistry has been on display on backdoor passes from Nick Collison to Harden, alley-oop passes from Eric Maynor to Harden and catch-and-shoot plays between Maynor and Daequan Cook.
“I think the play that they've established throughout the year is because of the consistency minutes,” Brooks said. “I just want them to go in there and be aggressive and play together and just keep building that team chemistry that they have already.”
So far, it's been one of the Thunder's best recipes for success. The bench unit has sacrificed individual games for the greater good of the team.
“Is James good enough to start? Yes,” Brooks said. “But right now, our team does really well with James coming off the bench and providing that spark on both ends of the floor.
“We all have a role, and we all have to do our job.”