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2013 NBA Playoffs: Scott Brooks has NOT failed (yet)

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Game 3 was a new experience for both Thunder and Thunder fans. How should we view Scott Brooks' performance?


The Thunder won game 3 because of 2 basic reasons: 1) they came out a house-a-fire, scoring 39 points in the 1st quarter alone; and 2) they made just enough plays at the very end to fend off the Rockets, even though after scoring those 39 opening points they only scored 38 in the entire 2nd half.

Much of this drop-off in offense has been laid at the feet of Scott Brooks, who seemingly thought that using an NCAA level offensive system was enough against a pro playoff team. In fact, you've probably already read Zorgon's take on it, stating that Scott Brooks has failed the Thunder (and if you haven't read it yet, please do so, because he nails every aspect of the problem).

My position in this post is not so much a counterpoint to Z's take, because I happen to agree with everything he wrote. I died inside a little each and every time Kevin Durant set up 35 feet from the rim, waited for a screen, and then tried to drive the ball against 3 defenders, which frequently ended in either a bad shot or turnover.

Rather, my take is more of a rejoinder to the notion that Brooks has failed the Thunder. He hasn't actually failed them, because they did win. However, the way that they won is not likely a repeatable outcome because almost any defense in the NBA is capable of stopping an offense that consists of a guy playing one-on-five (sorry, Phoenix). Even if the "system" works once more against Houston, it most certainly will not work against the Clippers or the defensive-minded Grizzlies (shudder). The system will have to change, or else the Thunder will not get out of the 2nd round.

All that said, I can't blame Brooks for taking the approach that he did, and I think that it was in fact an unusual form of courage. To be sure, giving the ball to Kevin Durant 40 times and asking him to make a play is not likely to be seen as 'courageous' since he's the best offensive player on the planet. What the strategy did however do was take an approach that reminded me about last year's Finals. If you recall Game 4, that was oddly enough the "Russell Westbrook Game," the one where he attacked the Heat over and over again for a series-high 43 points, only to come up short in the end. One prescient observation made after that game that has stuck with me was offered up by NBA coach-turned-analyst Jeff Van Gundy to Bill Simmons:

"[Van Gundy] believed Oklahoma City needed to win or lose this series on their own terms, not some idealistic, media-driven belief about how they SHOULD be playing."

I love the implications of this perspective because it tells me so much about how both Van Gundy has come to view the game and what it means for players when their coaches trust in them. Van Gundy has gone through numerous iterations of coaching in his career, and he's both a tactical as well as a player's coach. However, as Simmons notes in that piece, one thing Van Gundy learned in his career is that when you have a unique talent in your hands, sometimes you have to allow them the freedom to find their own way, even if it means temporary failure (like losing in the Finals). I believe the reason why is that if your player or team DOES need to change, it will not be because everyone in the outer-sphere says so, but because they tried and failed on their own terms, and they can now redefine themselves in the way they see fit to take the next step.

So it was with Brooks and Durant. Brooks, for better or worse, decided that he was going to put the ball in Durant's hands and permit him to win or lose the game on his own terms. Maybe Durant would be playmaker and OKC would win, or maybe he would be too passive and they'd lose. Maybe he'd take 30 shots, make 12, and the Rockets would have new life in the series, or maybe Durant would take 30 shots, make 13, and OKC would win by a hair. More importantly, Brooks had the courage to allow Durant to determine his, and his team's, outcome. Instead of micromanaging everything, Brooks took his hands off the wheel and trusted that the engine would keep moving forward.

The plan worked. Brooks was vindicated for a game, and Durant continued to write his own place in NBA history. In the future, Brooks' strategy must change as the opponents change, or else this season will finish unfulfilled. For one night however, with failure an option that had a built in excuse, Brooks' choice paid off and Durant reached a new level in his ascendancy.

Even someone like Phil Jackson might smile at that.