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Why OKC Thunder Should Start a James Harden-Russell Westbrook Backcourt

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 31:  (R-L) James Harden #13 reacts after making a three-pointer alongside teammate Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 31, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Matt ShetlerCorrespondent IJanuary 11, 2016

Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is very good at making adjustments, both in-game and following a Thunder loss, but he's going to be tested as OKC lost home-court advantage in the 2012 NBA Finals.

Brooks has one way to up the odds of this series making it back to Oklahoma City for a Game 6, and that's by starting James Harden alongside Russell Westbrook for the remainder of the series.

There are two schools of thought here—one being: why should Brooks mess with what has worked all year long?

However, the other line of thinking says you’re playing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals with three consecutive games on their floor. Playing your best players gives you the best chance to win.

That holds especially true when you look at the starts that the Thunder have gotten off to so far this series.

A few minutes into Game 1, the Thunder trailed by 10 points. The comeback was exhausting and took something out of them. A good start for Game 2 was a must for Brooks’ team. But after a few minutes into Game 2, the Thunder trailed 18-2.

Ever look further back to when Oklahoma City clinched their trip to the finals?

The Thunder trailed the Spurs 34-20 after the first quarter and 63-48 at the half in Game 6.

All of those games were at home. There may not be a furious comeback on the road.

One time may be a fluke. Twice is a problem. Three times and it's time to make changes.

Putting Harden in the starting lineup wouldn’t be anything radical for Brooks, it would be a simple adjustment. It worked for Erik Spoelstra putting Chris Bosh into the starting lineup.

The adjustments in this series for the coaches are nothing more than a chess match. Spoelstra made the first move, now it’s Brooks’ turn.

Harden played 31.4 minutes per game during the regular season, so why can’t some of them come at the beginning of the game?

Inserting him into the lineup would solve the Thunder’s two biggest weaknesses right now.

The obvious one is that they need scoring, and Harden is OKC’s most efficient scorer behind Kevin Durant. He shot 49 percent from the floor and can help Oklahoma City get into a rhythm early—which is a must.

Harden can also take the ball out of Russell Westbrook’s hands some—which, by default, makes the Thunder a better team.

With another ball-handler on the floor, there’s no way Westbrook takes 50 shots (only making 20) in two games.

It’s not as simple as the Thunder just missing shots. It’s the fact that Westbrook can’t get this team into their offense effectively enough. This isn’t the All-Star Game, when Westbrook can have the ball in his hands for 90 feet before shooting the ball.

This is the NBA Finals, when against a good defensive team, like Miami, ball movement and getting teammates involved means everything.

Harden isn’t a natural point guard by any means, but to be brutally honest, neither is Westbrook. In this series, Westbrook may be more effective without the ball in his hands every trip up the floor.

It’s something Brooks should really consider.

Here’s a situation where he shouldn’t be thinking about what's best for his team long term. He should be thinking about winning three games before the Thunder lose three.

If they do that, then Harden can go back to his sixth-man role next year, but he will do so as an NBA champion.

The pressure in this series is now on the Thunder. It’s Brooks’ move. We will find out on Sunday if he makes the right one.

 

Follow Matt Shetler on Twitter for news, reaction and analysis from around the NBA.

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