As inspiration, they need only look to a team that went through a similarly trying time two years ago—the 2012 Miami Heat.
Both teams laid claim to an offense that often relied upon two superstars taking turns dominating, a plan that was thrown into the shredder when the third-best player on the team, one who also functioned as the top big man, was lost for a prolonged stretch. For the Heat, it was Chris Bosh going down in a second-round series with the Indiana Pacers.
Miami didn't just survive, though. It was able to get through the trouble period and build upon that en route to the title. Obviously, that's a path the current Thunder would love to follow.
What Happened to the Heat?
During the 2012 postseason, Miami lost Bosh to an abdominal strain during a game against the Pacers in the second round. The big man would go on to miss the rest of the series with Indiana, ultimately playing in only the opening game, and he was also held out at the beginning of the ensuing battle with the Boston Celtics.
It changed so much that you might have thought Bosh's middle name was MiO. It's actually Wesson, but that's beside the point, because the big man's absence still changed everything.
Even though Bosh doesn't receive as much credit as LeBron and Wade do, he's still a legitimate member of the Big Three, one without whom the Heat wouldn't experience nearly as much success.
"This changes the dynamic a little bit," Erik Spoelstra said while responding to the news of Bosh's absence, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "It's not necessarily set in stone. I'll make changes and adjustments as we go and see what works. That's just the way it has to be."
That's the way it had to be, and that's the way it was.
The Heat were forced into playing significantly more small-ball, with LeBron lining up at the 4 increasingly often and becoming a true point forward.
Even with Spo making adjustments, Miami floundered during the next two games. The Heat scored 75 points in both Games 2 and 3, struggling to find an answer against a tough Indiana defense.
"There is a decided limp in the Miami Heat’s usually sure-footed swagger, as the once short-listed NBA title favorites stand two losses from playoff elimination," wrote the New York Times' Joanne C. Gerstner after a 94-75 loss put the Heat in a deficit for the first time.
Ultimately, though, elimination wouldn't happen.
Miami bounced back in Game 4, thanks to an absolutely fantastic outing from LeBron, who recorded 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists while flat-out shredding the vaunted Pacers defense. From there, it was all but over. Game 5 was a blowout victory, and Game 6 was never in much doubt after halftime.
But Bosh didn't immediately return once Boston was up. He missed the first four games of the series, and Miami struggled to score throughout the contests, only breaking into triple figures once (and that came with the aid of overtime).
It was clear that the team was still trying to make adjustments on the fly, and that ability to improvise worked out quite nicely when Bosh's abdominal strain healed up and he was added back into the lineup. After all, Miami won six of its next eight games, which resulted in everyone involved getting to hold up the coveted Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The beginning of that story surely sounds familiar for these current Thunder. But since they were on the losing end of the 2012 NBA Finals, they most certainly hope the ending isn't the exact same.
Improvisation, Not Necessarily Small-Ball
The Thunder don't have to learn from the 2012 Heat by following exactly in their footprints. So long as they arrive at the same destination, they can get there by following a slightly different route. And in this case, it's one that doesn't necessarily have to rely upon small-ball lineups.
Miami went down that avenue, shifting LeBron to power forward in many situations. And it worked for the Heat.
But that hasn't proven so successful for OKC against the red-hot San Antonio Spurs. Warnings about small sample sizes abound here, but the Thunder haven't fared well when Durant is the second-biggest player on the court. The offense works fine, but the defense has had an inordinate amount of trouble protecting the rim.
Durant, like LeBron, is fully capable of playing at either forward spot. He just hasn't done it as often, and it hasn't worked out so nicely for him when he's forced to line up at the 4.
This isn't how the Thunder are going to win games, and it's certainly not going to emerge as a long-term plan for OKC, even though it did for Miami. When Ibaka is back in the lineup, whether that's during Game 3 or later in the proceedings, Scott Brooks will inevitably shift back to his traditional rotations.
But he shouldn't.
This is a time when creativity and innovation are of paramount importance. Improvisation can throw even Gregg Popovich for a loop, as Brooks can tinker with lineups and experiment with pairings for short bursts.
If they don't work, adjust. If they do, implement that going forward.
According to NBA.com's statistical databases, OKC has used 21 different five-man lineups against the Spurs during the first two games of the Western Conference Finals. In a stat that's rather telling for the utter domination of San Antonio, only four have outscored the opposition on a per-possession basis:
- Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins
- Derek Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, Perry Jones and Kendrick Perkins
- Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler, Kevin Durant and Steven Adams
- Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Kevin Durant
Granted, those lineups haven't been used much. The third and fourth check in with nine and seven minutes, respectively, and the first two have been used for a combined three minutes.
Brooks needs to change that by using some of them for longer stretches.
After all, nothing else has worked against San Antonio. If there's any lesson he can take away from a team that faced the same situation two years ago, it's that innovation and improvisation can be dangerous tools, no matter how prepared the opponent might think it is.
But that's not it.
Imitate the Wade-LeBron Pairing
Without Bosh in the lineup during that sustained portion of the 2012 postseason, the Heat shifted the roles of their stars.
LeBron became more of a ball-handler than ever before. As ESPN.com's Beckley Mason explained at the time, Miami started running one play designed to get him the ball in his sweet spot with increasing frequency:
As a result, James is spending relatively little time running high pick-and-rolls against Oklahoma City. Rather, he often begins many possessions as a screener in the corner or high post. After an initial action designed to loosen up James' defender, he demands the ball. He catches the ball 16-19 feet from the rim, and goes to work. It's easy to diagram and nearly impossible to deny.
But you don't even have to look at the nuances in order to see what happened to LeBron. Just take a peek at some of the playoff stats from before Bosh's injury, while the big man was out and after he returned:
LeBron was simply more involved, and it stayed that way even after Bosh was inserted back into the lineup against the Celtics. He was counted on as a point-forward with increasing frequency.
And Wade's role changed as well.
With LeBron taking over more of the ball-handling and distributing responsibilities, Wade was able to focus on his biggest strength—slashing. He worked as an off-ball cutter, which allowed him to conserve energy and do plenty of damage just about everywhere on the court.
Not every team can imitate those two superstars. But the Thunder can.
Brooks might be conditioned to think that all point guards should emulate traditional ones, based primarily on his playing days, but Westbrook is not an orthodox point guard. He's perfectly capable of using his athleticism to look like Wade did a few years back, though his shooting range potentially makes him an even more deadly off-ball weapon.
And then there's Durant, who showed throughout his MVP campaign that he was becoming a quality distributor. He's not on LeBron's level, but he's more than capable of subsuming ball-handling responsibilities and spearheading the charge rather than biding his time and waiting for his teammates to get him involved.
Now, this might seem like awkward timing.
Why would the Thunder make these adjustments when Ibaka is about to return to the lineup?
Will the Thunder bounce back against the Spurs and advance to the NBA Finals?
Well, it wasn't the adjustments without Bosh that allowed Miami to claim the 2012 title. It was the ability to continue utilizing what was learned from the adjustments once Bosh had returned; the first portion was only necessary for survival.
OKC has already survived the Ibaka absence period, if only by virtue of playing just two games against the superior Spurs. Now it's time to attack the next portion of the postseason.
What else do the Thunder have to lose? More games?
That'll happen if adjustments aren't made just as surely as it will if the changes fail. Brooks and the Thunder might as well try. Even if the efforts against San Antonio are ultimately unsuccessful, maybe they'll at least stumble upon something that increases the team's ceiling going forward.
Stagnation has been the theme in OKC for a little while now, and this could end up being one of those silver linings that are sometimes hard to find in such a trying time.