Thunder at Heat: Night of Redemption for Brooks

(Originally Published in Welcome to Loud City)

On Wednesday night, the Thunder sans Russell Westbrook went to Miami and blew the Heat out. The convincing manner of the victory must have had all Thunder fan like us smiling in our sleep.

Despite Kevin Durant’s MVP-worthy performance, the key to Thunder’s victory actually lies with the much-maligned head coach Scott Brooks. I believe that three brave but spot-on decision from Brooks crucially tipped the game in the Thunder’s favour, and he really should deserve more credit than he has been given during this excellent stretch for the Thunder.

Firstly, when the Thunder once again endured a nightmarish start against the Heat, Scott Brooks responded by bringing on… Derek Fisher, the second oldest point player in the league. You would have thought that playing one of the slowest point guards against the fast-paced Heat was suicidal, but it turned out to be an excellent decision: Fisher proceeded to stabilize the visibly rattled Thunder, made all 5 of his three-pointers (some of them in ridiculous fashion, admittedly), and held his own on the defensive end as well. It has been a recurring argument that Fisher is playing too much, especially vis-a-vis the other young talents such as Jeremy Lamb waiting on our bench. Yet he was superb in the 18 minutes that he has played, and I can now sufficiently convince myself that having him in the playoffs will be a blessing. (Not to mention his doesn’t miss in the AT&T Center either.)

Secondly, Perry Jones (along with Thabo Sefelosha) took over the task of guarding Lebron James- of all people- once Durant picked up two early fouls. If a basketball imagery for the phrase ‘baptism by fire’ was needed, this has to be it: practically throwing a rookie at the established best player in the world away from home. I thought he did extremely well considering the circumstance: yes he did pick up 5 fouls, and James scored 34 points anyway. However, eye test would suggest that he made James work for his points with his length, and more importantly relieved Durant of this demanding duty. I seem to recall that, when the Thunder first drafted Jones late in the first round in 2012, an idea was floated around that he could be Thunder’s answer to Lebron: OKC now has a player that can in some way match with Lebron’s physicality. Credit Brooks for playing Jones extensive minutes.

Finally (and the most controversial), after witnessing five minutes of the Miami onslaught, Brooks subbed out Kendrick Perkins. And he remained on the bench for the rest of the game. Thunder then outscored the Heat 110-80 along the way, simply blowing out the defending champions.

Now you will ask: how can we credit Brooks for finally making a decision that has been painfully obvious in the last 2 years, ever since the Thunder was ‘dismantled’ by the Heat in the 2012 playoffs? As we know, Brook’s is a player’s coach: he sticks by his players no matter what: those moments when Westbrook was ‘not a point guard’, ‘taking too many shots’, or ‘not passing to Durant’; or when Durant was ‘too thin’, even when Thabo ‘can’t shoot 3s’. What Brooks did was to continue playing them, until they came through and become better players in their own right. (With all the talks of Sam Presti’s drafting genius, there must also be some credit due for Brooks in helping them develop) So why wouldn’t Brooks stick with Perkins, hoping he would simply play better?

Perk HAS been playing slightly better (the Portland game comes to mind) On Wednesday, however, Brooks has finally accepted that Perk does not fit matchup-wise if the team did not have Westbrook, and promptly took him out of the game. He adjusted, and the Thunder won. What’s not to like?

Some of you will undoubtedly say that the Thunder should have ditched Perkins a lot earlier, perhaps at the 2012 finals. It’s easy to blame Perk: but we must consider what would happen to the lineup without Perkins in 2012. Should the Thunder play smallball all the way through, Durant would have to be a full-time PF (marginalising Nick Collison in the process?), and the Thunder would probably be forced to start either Sefolosha, Harden or Daequan Cook at SF. (Unless you want Lazar Hayward…) All are undersized to matchup with James, and I do not want to imagine the latter two defending him. In addition, with Perkins ‘letting down’ the team, the Thunder lost the series by a combined 20 points, and even that statistic was significantly inflated by the 15-point game 5 loss. The 2012 series was a lot closer than what the media had portrayed.

The lack of Westbrook meant the Thunder had to adjust and find extra offensive power. And with Perry Jones at the helm, Thunder could afford to play small. They did and it worked brilliantly. Now, Perkins will almost definitely be around and playing when matchup dictates; but we also know that Brooks can, and will, adjust. I believe that he has redeemed himself. Bring on the playoffs!