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The Oklahoma City Thunder aren't down 2-1 in the NBA Finals because of their coach. They're down 2-1 because LeBron James has turned into some unholy amalgamation of Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley, and because Shane Battier has decided that he is really, really good at hitting 3-pointers from both the wing and top of the key. And it's not completely unreasonable for the Miami Heat — defending Eastern Conference champions and owners of a regular-season record that would have fetched 58 wins in a typical 82-game run, to be up 2-1 after three hotly contested Finals games.
This doesn't mean Brooks is supposed to get off cleanly after the way he mishandled his team's rotation in Game 3, especially in light of the news that Brooks and his representatives actually turned down a three-year and nearly $11 million contract extension as reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Brooks has been criticized more than any other coach in this postseason, save for perhaps the oft-maligned Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers, and for good reason. And the man's work in sitting both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during the last five minutes of the third quarter leaves him more than open for us to pick things apart.
Because though the Thunder only finished the third quarter down 69-67, the Heat basically turned the game around with a 15-3 run with Durant and Westbrook on the bench. Unless you count Derek Fisher's four-point play. Which we don't. Because it was awful. And because Brooks didn't exactly draw it up.
Durant, as you'll recall, was on the pine with four fouls, an adherence to an outmoded style of thinking that doesn't hold up to logic or reason. The thought process behind sitting an important player with four fouls though there is a quarter and a half left to play is self-defeating at best and anachronistic at worst. The back and forth usually goes something like this:
Why are you going to sit him?
Because he has four fouls.
What happens if you play him?
He might get a fifth foul.
What happens if he gets a fifth foul?
Then we'll have to sit him.
So, you're sitting him so you don't have to sit him?
Aren't you just handing yourself the punishment ahead of time, without actually earning it?
Um … he has four fouls.
Sitting a guy so you don't have to sit him is straight from the Larry Brown Book of Things You Just Do So Shut Up, and it destroyed the Thunder's momentum (for you intangible types) and spacing and scoring opportunities (for you pragmatic, turtleneck-wearers). Once Dwyane Wade put Durant into the popcorn machine and picked up Kevin's fourth foul (and it was barely a foul, so you know the refs had a few make-up calls on their mind), the damage should have been done — at some point, Durant would probably have to sit following his fifth foul.
So why anticipate the mitigating factor midway through the third? Why give yourself the same sentence without actually committing the crime? Because you may have to sit him midway through the fourth quarter with a fifth foul? As if any coach would sit him, then? As if Durant, who has never been foul prone, would somehow keep his foul rate up?
And then Brooks sat Russell Westbrook. Because look at him, guy.
On paper, Westbrook's third quarter was a stinker of sorts. He missed 3 of 4 shots, turned the ball over twice to two assists, and generally played a little out of control. Brooks, mindful of this, sat his second-best player for nearly half the third quarter because he was either out of sorts or needing rest (Scott went back and forth on this after the game). "You've got to rest guys," Brooks said after Game 3, "sooner or later."
True, except a shot of Westbrook on the Thunder bench sooner (rather than later) showed a 23-year-old point guard who wasn't exactly stumbling over his own tongue with fatigue. Yes, Derek Fisher Fisher'd his way into a four-point play scant seconds after Westbrook sat down, and perhaps he needed a blow of sorts (for his brain, his legs, what have you), but for six minutes? Westbrook was about to play the entire fourth quarter, we know this, but since when do fourth-quarter points count for double? Why leave both on the bench as the Heat turn a 64-54 disadvantage into a 69-67 lead?
Especially after Brooks' defensive reminders helped the Thunder batten down the paint to start the third quarter, with Kendrick Perkins playing his best ball of the series?
If we saw LeBron James do the on-court version of what Scott pulled off for six minutes of game time, even late in the third, the press and fans would rightfully destroy him. Because this was pulling up for a 3-pointer after a 3-on-1 fast break. This was dribbling the ball off your foot. This was letting Eddy Curry get an offensive rebound after a missed free throw. This was a major, major screw-up that didn't exactly cost Oklahoma City the game, though it certainly aided in its demise.
All indications pointed to Miami possibly taking a game in Oklahoma City, whether that took place in Game 1, 2, or 6. All indications and history point toward the Thunder taking one in Miami, just because it is so hard to beat a great team three times in a row, even on your own floor. For the Thunder to be down 2-1, three games in, isn't outrageous.
History and likelihood don't make free throws, though. This Finals series doesn't have to go the way it's supposed to, how we expect it to, or how we think it should. A team could have swept this series, and won the whole thing by a total of eight points. It could have gone seven with the point differential being even. Even though those numbers decide the series, the actual wins to losses count isn't always representative.
Both Oklahoma City and Miami can't let probability sway things for them, though.
Play has to sway. And play can't sway of the players can't play. Daequan Cook and Derek Fisher are players, we respect the heck out of them, but at this time of year Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are PLAYERS, son. And Brooks' inability to think on his feet and mix things up with things (relative to the time) going "wrong" (pell-mell play from RW, foul trouble for KD) failed his team. What seemed like a crisis at the time begat a bigger crisis that put Miami in a position to succeed.
That's what coaches do, on either side of that coin. They don't make the shots, but they'll certainly set them up for you. And Scott Brooks, in his third season of wrestling with this young and dynamic team, is going to have to show us quite a bit over the next week or so in order to make up for a Game 3 gone terribly wrong.
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