The solution seemed quite simple.
Yet it took Scott Brooks 33 1/2 minutes to make the proper adjustment. But once the Thunder's coach finally did, New Orleans didn't stand a chance.
Oklahoma City escaped with a 92-88 win over the Western-Conference-worst Hornets on Wednesday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena and, in the process, extended its winning streak to nine games.
It almost didn't happen. The Thunder found itself in a much more competitive contest than it perhaps should have been largely because Brooks was hell-bent on playing his big lineup against a smaller, more active and athletic unit for the Hornets. Only when OKC went small did the Thunder dodge disaster.
The game-changing moment came with 2:31 remaining in the third quarter. OKC trailed 60-50, its 12-game streak of at least 100 points already in the rearview mirror. That's when Brooks subbed in Eric Maynor for Kendrick Perkins and rode small ball the rest of the way, watching it outscore the Hornets 42-28 to end the game.
“Our big lineup is really good; Perk and Serge (Ibaka) protecting the basket and getting rebounds and helping our guards guard in pick and rolls,” Brooks said when asked why he stuck with his more conventional lineup. “But there's going to be times in an 82-game season where you have to change things up …”
Floor-time stats of the Thunder's five-man units make it clear that the Thunder's offense is at its best when playing small ball, or one big man. But on a night when the Thunder's offense was the most out of sync it's been all season, Brooks resisted the change. The decision was even more curious considering the Hornets played major minutes with a three point guard lineup featuring Brian Roberts, Austin Rivers and Greivis Vasquez.
For large stretches, Perkins was defending Rivers and Vasquez, two players who are listed as being four and six inches, respectively, shorter than Perkins.
“It's hard, man,” Maynor said of containing a three point guard lineup. “That's with anybody if you get a 6-10 guy on you and you're 6-2. That's what they kept trying to do, trying to flatten our people out and trying to make plays that way.”
It was working.
Roberts, a 27-year rookie who went undrafted in 2008, scored 10 points through three quarters. Rivers and Vasquez combined for another 10 over that stretch.
“They were making shots,” said Durant, who scored a game-high 35 points. “They were spreading us out … and hitting tough shots over us. Once you get their confidence going early in the game, then the basket starts to get wider for them.”
When Maynor came in for Perkins with 21/2 minutes left in that third quarter, joining Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin, Durant and Nick Collison, the Thunder immediately became better suited to switch on screens and stay in front of the Hornets' ballhandlers. The defense started getting deflections and scoring in transition.
Second-year and seldom-used guard Reggie Jackson was the surprise spark. He checked in with 1:46 left in the third quarter, replacing Westbrook, and immediately helped generate a Hornets turnover at one end before burying a 3-pointer at the other.
“Reggie came in and did a great job bringing our spirit into the game,” said Martin, who scored 17 off the bench. “Guys just kind of followed his speed and we just went from there.”
The Thunder trailed 19-17 after the first quarter, setting a new season low for points in the opening period. Both teams shot below 35 percent in the quarter, but it had the look and feel of sloppiness as opposed to a defensive battle. Oklahoma City couldn't create quality offense and instead chucked wild shots at the rim without moving the ball around like it has become so adept at doing.
In the first two meetings with the Hornets, the Thunder registered 31 assists and 21 assists, respectively. That led to the offense humming in those blowouts, as the Thunder shot 54.1 percent and 50.6 percent while winning by 15 and 21.
By halftime Wednesday, the Thunder had just five assists and not coincidentally trailed 44-36 at the break. It was the fewest points OKC has scored in a half this season. More troubling was the Thunder's 30.6 percent shooting.
“We're human,” explained Maynor. “Like coach came in here and said, we play 82 games and we can't play all of them good.”