With nine minutes to play and his team well on their way to a commanding 3-1 series lead, Scott Brooks had to have felt a sense of relief.
The sixth-year head coach of the Thunder was highly scrutinized for his inability to adjust in the first round against the Grizzlies, and looked out of his depth in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, but with his team riding the emotion of Kevin Durant’s memorable MVP speech, they had the dangerous Clippers on the ropes in Game 4, and if they had closed the deal, nobody would be questioning Brooks’ ability.
Yet, when hero shots stopped falling, and simply hoping the opposition would miss wide open threes started to backfire, Oklahoma City fell victim to one of the greatest comebacks in NBA Playoff history, and their coach deserves the lion’s share of the blame. Brooks took four timeouts during his squad’s epic collapse, and considering how the Thunder failed to adjust on either side of the ball you have to wonder what he said. Let’s speculate:
Play-by-Play: Reggie Jackson makes tough shot to beat shot clock (OKC 82-66). Darren Collison hits a jumper. Chris Paul passes to Blake Griffin for easy dunk. Kevin Durant throws weak cross court pass out of double team that’s intercepted by Jamal Crawford for a layup to cut lead to 10 with 8:11 to play.
Brooks: “Hey, we’re fine, we’re fine, let’s just execute like we did in the first half.” Translation: Westbrook, go make some pull-up threes in someone’s face
Play-by-Play: Thunder miss two jumpers and turn it over, while Chris Paul walks in for three layups off the pick and roll to make it 84-78 with 6:13 to play.
Brooks: “We can’t let him get to the rim like that, let’s switch on everything.”
Any Thunder Player: “Coach, maybe we could just help when Russell gets picked. I mean, Danny Granger can’t hit water if he fell out a boat right now, let’s let that guy shoot!”
Play-by-Play: Blake Griffin starts to dominate Kevin Durant on the low block, and hits 3 of 4 free throws to make it a one possession game. Westbrook dances around on offense and Durant only gets the ball with his back to the hoop at the three-point line, where he apparently is going to take advantage of the 11-inch height advantage he has over Chris Paul. Result is another weak cross court pass leading to a turnover and Clippers layup to make it 90-89 with 2:57 to play.
Brooks: “We need to space the floor around Kevin. Caron, you’re going in for Thabo, get ready to swing the ball if they come to double him.
Assistant Coach: “Hey, Scott, why on earth is Kevin guarding Griffin? Blake is playing the 5 for them, and Serge was doing an outstanding job on him before, maybe Kevin should switch onto Granger…”
Brooks: “Right, defense. Umm, make sure you close out way too hard on Darren Collison’s pump fakes, even though he’s not a confident shooter, I’d rather he got to the rim for more uncontested layups! Alright everyone, let’s close this out, Russell and Kevin- be better than them.”
Brooks During Final Timeout: “Ok, we need a quick score, Russ you know what to do. After we get a bucket, there’s going to be a two second differential between shot and game clock, so nobody foul. We’ll get a stop and call a timeout, what’s that? No timeouts left? Oh, well, let’s hope they inexplicably shoot, if they do- Russ you know what to do.”
And there you have it. While the players obviously deserve some blame for this loss considering they’re the ones who played terrible help defense, stood around while their superstar teammates went one-on-five, and clearly let off the gas pedal after building a huge lead early in the fourth, it’s the coaches job to metaphorically slap them face (or physically if you’re old school) and get them to make the necessary adjustments to pull out a huge road win. If Brooks’ team fails to execute all the way out of the playoffs, the head coach could be on his way to the chopping block.