Does Scott Brooks Have One More Adjustment Left to Force a Game 7?

Scott Brooks and Gregg Popovich have adjusted back and forth in the Western Conference Finals to great success. Can Brooks pull off one more win?

The Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder has been a veritable chess match between opposing coaches Gregg Popovich and Scott Brooks. Every time the series has shifted locations, the home coach has had a trick up his sleeve that ultimately paid dividends.

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has long been known as a roster tinkering genius, so the shifts in rotations and lineups are something we’ve come to expect from him. Just another day at the office.

Thunder Coach Scott Brooks, on the other hand, carries the reputation of being a little too stubborn with his lineups. During this playoff run, however, he has gone off the beaten path more than once, trotting out four different starting lineups (a big step, considering he hadn’t made a non-injury related change to his starters since the 2010-11 season prior to this postseason). He has also gone away from overplaying his veterans (something he often does to a fault) and has cleared space for his young, energetic core.

Games 1 and 2

Regardless of Brooks’ growing willingness to make adjustments and the success that has come with it, the Spurs got the jump in the first two games of this series. They trotted out the same starting lineup that they had used the whole postseason to that point, consisting of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter, and it was business as usual.

On the other side of the floor, the Thunder had the unenviable task of trying to replace their defensive anchor and one third of their Big Three in Serge Ibaka, who had (at the time) been ruled out for the rest of the postseason. Nick Collison joined Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, and Thabo Sefolosha in the Thunder’s regular starting lineup (sans Serge) and the results were, um, troubling.

Most Used Lineups for Games 1-2

TeamLineupMIN+/-Off RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
ThunderPerkins, Collison, Durant, Sefolosha, Westbrook23-1480.3104.6-24.340.8%36.0%
SpursSplitter, Duncan, Leonard, Green, Parker18+18109.561.6+47.957.1%62.5%

Over the first two games, the Spurs manhandled the Thunder, winning both contests by a combined 52 points. They shot 53.8% from the floor and 45.0% from deep to the Thunder’s 42.6% and 29.8%. They won the rebounding battle 93-75 and controlled the paint, outscoring OKC 120-74 in that area.

The most used lineups for both teams over those two games (the starting group for each squad) could not have been further apart in terms of effectiveness. The Spurs starters edged the Thunder lineup in raw plus-minus, offensive rating (points per 100 possessions), defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), net rating (offensive minus defensive), rebound percentage (percentage of available rebounds they managed to grab while on the court), and effective field goal percentage (weighted two- and three-point shots).

Put simply, the Spurs controlled every important aspect of the game and the Thunder seemed too deflated by the loss of Serge to put up a fight. This might seem obvious, but it’s hard to win basketball games when the lineup you use the most is outplayed so completely by the other side.

Games 3 and 4

When the Thunder went back to OKC with an 0-2 deficit, they were energized by the miraculous return of Ibaka, but Brooks wasn’t content to let his return be the only adjustment. He also pulled long-time starter and defensive stalwart Sefolosha from the lineup in favor of Reggie Jackson. The starting trio of Collison, Sefolosha, and Perkins went a combined 4 of 19 (21.1%) from the field over those first two contests with a total of 9 points to show for their efforts, so the defensive advantages no longer outweighed the offensive drain those players were having on the Thunder.

Jackson’s effectiveness against the Spurs during the regular season (21.3 points per game, 67.9% shooting from the floor, 72.7% from deep) made him a great choice to replace Thabo and the results of the switch (coupled with Ibaka’s return) were gangbusters.

Most Used Lineups for Games 3-4

TeamLineupMIN+/-Off RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
ThunderPerkins, Ibaka, Durant, Jackson, Westbrook10+7150.4100.5+49.950.0%77.3%
SpursSplitter, Duncan, Leonard, Green, Parker11-796.5139.1-42.750.0%40.7%

The script flipped entirely in Games 3 and 4, as the Thunder gained back the edge in all the important areas shown in the table above. OKC outscored San Antonio by 22 points over those two matches, outrebounded them 94-77 and shot 47.1% from the field to the Spurs’ 39.7%. The points in the paint battle had Ibaka’s return written all over it, as the Thunder got the combined 90-76 edge there. The Thunder effectively responded to the Spurs’ two blowout victories at home with two of their own and the series shifted back to San Antonio for Game 5.

Game 5

Not content to stick with what wasn’t working, Popovich made the first change to his starting lineup this postseason for Game 5. Splitter was replaced by Matt Bonner in the starting five, in an attempt to force a Thunder big out of the paint to respect Bonner’s range and free up the lane in the process.

Bonner represented a bit of a red herring, though, as the Spurs’ most used lineup in Game 5 consisted of Boris Diaw and Manu Ginobili in place of Splitter/Bonner and Danny Green. That lineup regained the all-important rebounding and shooting edges over the Thunder’s new starting lineup and it resulted in, you guessed it, another blowout win. This time, it was a 117-89 Spurs shellacking of the Thunder.

Most Used Lineups for Game 5

TeamLineupMIN+/-Off RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
ThunderPerkins, Ibaka, Durant, Jackson, Westbrook16-3118.6122.1-3.548.3%56.1%
SpursDiaw, Duncan, Leonard, Ginobili, Parker12+8133.9117.8+16.152.6%75.4%

Game 6 and Beyond

With Game 6 back in OKC on Saturday night, it seems that it might be Brooks’ turn for an adjustment if the Thunder hope to stay alive and force a winner-take-all Game 7. It might seem like an obvious cause and effect scenario, but the team that has won each of these games has shot a better percentage from the floor, grabbed more rebounds, and scored more points in the paint than their opponent.

With those three keys in mind, what adjustment could Scott Brooks make to get the all-important Game 6 victory?

How about rookie Steven Adams?

Perkins' effectiveness has been questioned in NBA circles and in the media for years and a lot of people are growing enamored with Adams’ grit, hustle, and general upside on both ends of the floor. Many seem to view Adams as the starting center for OKC for years to come, so why not start now when the Thunder’s season depends on it? Here’s a look at Perkins versus Adams and how they compare during these playoffs (numbers adjusted to reflect production per 36 minutes).

Steven Adams7.970.5%8.12.7
Kendrick Perkins6.053.3%9.60.6

Perkins has the slight edge in rebounding, but Adams has Perk beat in scoring, shooting, and blocked shots. Perkins has long held the starting center job for the Thunder for his ability to defend bigs like Duncan one-on-one and set solid screens, but the slight drop off from him to Adams in those areas (which might soon be debatable anyway), is so much smaller than the gap between Adams’ offensive game and ability to alter shots in the paint compared to Perk.

For an idea of how Adams could gel with the rest of the current starters, take a look at the 28 minutes that this projected starting five played together this season.

Possible Adjustment for the Thunder in Game 6

TeamLineupMIN+/-Off RtgDef RtgNet RtgREB%eFG%
ThunderAdams, Ibaka, Durant, Jackson, Westbrook28+17134.4101.7+32.765.9%60.6%

It’s a pretty small sample size, but the strengths seem to play to what it takes to win in this series. The effective field goal percentage and rebounding percentage are phenomenal marks, even in the small sample. Furthermore, despite Perk’s defensive reputation, Adams’ 50.0% shooting that he has given up to opponents at the rim during this postseason is decidedly better than Perk’s 58.8%. All of this combined could help the Thunder regain the edge in shooting, rebounding, and points in the paint, which would seem correlates very positively with winning between these two squads.

For the Thunder to have a shot at extending this series, they’ll need to find a different formula than what they were using in Game 5. Maybe it’s another change to the starting lineup to counter Pop’s latest move, or maybe it’ll just require Durant and Westbrook going off as they’ve shown they can many times before. Regardless, Pop has put Brooks in check in their lineup chess match.

Can Brooks avoid the checkmate?