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Play Breakdown: Oklahoma City Thunder, Scott Brooks Wilt in Crunch-Time

April 11, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks (right) instructs small forward Kevin Durant (35) during the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The City Thunder defeated the Warriors 116-97. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Brooks believes that Kevin Durant had a choice.

“[Durant] has the opportunity to catch and drive,” Brooks said of his star’s missed 28-footer in the waning seconds of Game 5. “I give KD that decision to make a play. Tough shot.”

A tough shot, indeed. And one made especially so because not only did the Grizzlies know it was coming, but they knew it was the Thunder’s only option, too.

None of this was a surprise to those who have followed Oklahoma City’s steady rise from bottom-feeder to championship contender since relocating from Seattle in 2008. Brooks, of course, has been instrumental to that ascent. He replaced PJ Carlesimo on an interim basis November 22nd of that year, with the Thunder’s record a miserable 1-13. And though Oklahoma City finished 2008-2009 far from playoff contention at 23-59, Brooks did enough – most notably, if intangibly, heeding the development of Durant and erratic rookie Russell Westbrook – to have the interim tag lifted immediately after the regular season ended.

All he’s done since is guide the young Thunder to four consecutive Northwest Division titles and a Finals appearance in 2012, compiling the 16th-best winning percentage (.633) of all head coaches in league history. Not too shabby. Fantastic, in fact.

Brooks is a good coach, and Oklahoma City might not have developed into a perennial championship contender without his influence. It’s easy to forget that once upon a time Westbrook and Serge Ibaka were more athlete than basketball players; even the can’t miss-Durant has progressed further than sane minds anticipated. Brooks deserves unending credit for fostering such individual growth and creating an unbreakable team-wide culture. The Thunder’s metamorphosis from an average to elite defensive unit since 2011 has his fingerprints all over it, too.

But Brooks is in over his head now, and Oklahoma City’s typically failed final possession – in both design and execution – encapsulates the depth of his inadequacy.

1

Thabo Sefolosha, in-bounding, has yet to be given the ball by the official, and already Marc Gasol informs Tony Allen of the forthcoming Thunder action: a staggered down-screen for Durant from Westbrook and Ibaka. That’s not so damning by itself. This is the playoffs – every team is supremely comfortable with its opponent’s sets and basic strategy. And involving the likely MVP and Oklahoma City’s two other major offensive threats in the same play seems a winning proposition.

But this set, simply, is far too simple. Especially if the Thunder are intent on making the initial pass to Durant.

2

3

Gasol, clairvoyant or merely observant, correctly predicts Oklahoma City’s set. In the first still above, Allen turns his back to the ball and stays attached to Durant as Westbrook sets a pick. Gasol knows Ibaka’s is coming, so he turns his head to get a better sense of KD’s chosen angle.

In the succeeding image is where the Thunder – or Sefolosha, more specifically – miss a grand opportunity for an easy, game-winning score. Gasol jumps out ahead of Ibaka’s screen, almost beating Durant over the top as Allen tries desperately to trail behind. There’s ample space for Ibaka to flash towards the ball at the elbow in the second still, where he’d have a relatively clear path to the basket or 3-on-2 chance. This is the corollary that teams playing the highest level of basketball consistently execute, on the fly or otherwise – and it’s an elementary one. Oklahoma City fails to do so far too frequently by this point in its evolution.

4

Durant is open as Sefolosha begins to pass, but Memphis has pushed him beyond the arc with momentum parallel to the baseline. And two of the world’s best defenders are right on his heels, ensuring that a dribble will only further compromise his balance. This is a very difficult shot with an exceedingly low percentage of success. If one player in basketball makes it more than any other, that guy is probably Durant; but that doesn’t matter.

Even after opting for such a plain, common set with little to no secondary – or even false! – actions, the Thunder have a chance to get a great look for a game-winner. We already touched on Ibaka instinctively flashing to the elbow after Gasol cheats over his pick, but look at Westbrook, open just outside the left block with the smaller Mike Conley on his hip. This is the pass, Thabo! With just under three seconds remaining, Russ would have ample time to take a dribble or two, bump his defender, and rise for a shot, but Sefolosha’s eyes follow Durant like attracting magnets.

5

Reggie Jackson is stationed below the scrum with Ibaka and Tayshaun Prince as Durant catches. One hopes – and would suspect if Erik Spoelstra or Doc Rivers, for instance, roamed the OKC sideline – that he’s tasked with doing more on this play than making passive movement, but there ‘s little indication that’s the case. Perhaps he was supposed to pop off another down-screen from Ibaka to the right wing, or even set a back-pick of his own to free Serge for a lob and was confused by Gasol’s aggressiveness to contain Durant. But that’s a problem in and of itself – the Thunder must be aware that Durant will get Memphis’ full attention, ready to exploit the numbers game gleaned from that inevitability. And that the players are so willfully ignorant in that regard is a referendum on the Oklahoma City coaching staff more than anything else.

And it’s not hard to realize! Vince Carter’s recent heroics come to mind, and a scripted action from Miami in March does, too.

This criticism of Brooks is hardly knee-jerk; I’ve been a proponent of his importance to the Thunder’s identity since it came into question a couple years ago. And we’d all be remiss to make such harsh, concrete judgements on Brooks’ fitness for the Thunder job from one of the most competitive playoff series in league history. Basketball is always about the process over results, and four overtime games amount to veritable coin-flips.

But that ever-popular trope works against Brooks in this case, too. Oklahoma City’s late-game ineptitude speaks volumes of the detail in the Thunder’s process, and are the loudest reminders that such successful results extracted from this wildly talented bunch should almost come by accident. Great coaches elevate teams and players in ways we see and ways we can’t. Brooks has done so much of the latter in Oklahoma City, but it’s finally time the former needs to matter more. And as he’s shown time and again, his on-court acumen simply isn’t up to the task.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats and basketball-reference.com

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Jack Winter