In a dimly lit gym packed with press, teammates, family and fans—hundreds more of whom cheered just beyond the building’s doors—Kevin Durant officially accepted the 2013-14 NBA Most Valuable Player award with a teary-eyed speech whose cadence and class enraptured everyone in witness.
Here, clearly, was not just an MVP the basketball-loving public could be proud of, but a once-in-a-generation talent poised to put a permanent stamp, informed as much by athletic brilliance as the buoyancy of his personality, on the game itself.
And yet, somehow, Durant’s critical importance threatens to be overshadowed by the doings and decisions of another denizen of the Thunder bench.
That man, of course, is head coach Scott Brooks.
In the wake of OKC’s 122-105 Game 1 drubbing at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night, the criticism, for once, had little to do with whether Russell Westbrook could stay under control and worry more about running the offense than letting fly a flurry of contested 18-foot jumpers.
Nor did it concern the play of Durant, whose shaky Round 1 performance against the Memphis Grizzlies saw him devolve from hardwood hero into haughty headline—“Mr. Unreliable,” The Oklahoman infamously christened him.
Indeed, the Thunder’s transgressions transcended that of mere mistakes and miscues. Game 1 was a crisis of schemes, a clinic of coaching strategy and, in the case of Chris Paul, sheer on-court brilliance the playoff likes of which we’ve never seen.
That’s not to say Paul’s performance falls solely on Brooks’ shoulders, such simplistic scapegoating being neither accurate nor productive.
At the same time, the Thunder’s collapse wasn’t purely Paul’s doing. The score on every one of those 10 assists, after all, had to leave someone else’s hand—more often than not, a hand with enough space in front of it to land a Learjet.
As King James Gospel’s Peter Owen notes, no matter OKC’s strategic turn, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was to corner and corral it:
Whenever Brooks attempted to go small to match the Clippers’ smaller lineup, Los Angeles had success inside. If the Thunder tried to go big with Perkins and Ibaka, the offense suffered and the Clippers continued to pull away. With Chris Paul pulling the strings and the rest of the Clippers’ passing game on-point against a Thunder defense that appeared a step slow all night, Los Angeles constantly found open shooters in the corner or enjoyed unfettered access to the lane.
This isn’t the first time Brooks has found himself in the coaching crosshairs, of course. In a city where the Thunder are the unquestioned Biggest Ticket in Town, speculation as to Brooks' future has become something of a springtime rite, the perfect placeholder for more nuanced reason and logic.
As the Memphis series careened quickly toward the cliff, the righteous rancor—the rogue asteroid in an otherwise stable basketball solar system—started creeping a bit too close for comfort.
Westbrook continued: "Me and Scotty have a great relationship. I’ve never once mentioned that I want Scotty to leave ever since I’ve been here. We created a bond with each other that’s grown.”
Durant, for his part, has remained steadfast in his support for Brooks, whom KD has repeatedly credited for helping acclimate the one-and-done college phenom to the rigors and tumult of the NBA grind back in 2007, when Brooks was an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics.
As the Golden State Warriors' firing of Mark Jackson teaches us, however, sometimes not even a superstar’s confidence—two superstars in the Thunder's case—is enough to forestall a scapegoat’s slaying.
Which is why, more than the faults and false alarms of playoffs past, this postseason might well mark Brooks’ true do-or-die moment.
Never has the task at hand been harder: In the Clippers, Oklahoma City faces an entirely different basketball animal—on both sides of the ball—than the Grit & Grind Grizzlies.
The challenge will be a profound one. Owing to one of the deepest benches in the league, L.A. boasts the personnel not only to match strategies—of size specifically—but to force Brooks to adjust in ways that only a coach of Rivers’ caliber can consistently dictate.
To stem and ultimately reverse the tide, neutralizing Paul on the perimeter—possible, perhaps, only in facsimile—will be paramount. That means not being overreliant on the defensive athleticism of Westbrook and opting instead for a more helter-skelter approach—a bit of Reggie Jackson there, a stretch of Thabo Sefolosha there, switching on certain picks and not others. Anything to derail the rhythm.
Such a grand gambit is easier said than done, of course, and nor will it prove an automatic panacea. From limiting turnovers to delving into their playbook’s deeper cuts, the Thunder have their work cut out for them if they have any chance of exorcising the postseason demons.
Sadly, should they survive this latest test, the pomp and praise won’t be for the embattled Brooks—it will be for the men whom we so often assume prevail in spite of, rather than in accordance with, the coach's clipboard.
Such as it is in a profession where much of the motivational manna lies not in success, but in survival.