DALLAS -- There is a game within a game played in basketball, a subtle chess match between opposing coaches that often plays a role in the outcome. The elite coaches -- Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich -- are grandmasters, brilliant tacticians who move players around like high-flying rooks and pawns. Scott Brooks isn't considered a part of that group yet. After this postseason, that could change.
Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday was a battle controlled by Kevin Durant, taken over by James Harden and grinded out by Nick Collison. But it was Brooks' decision to go small in the fourth quarter, to roll with a reserve-heavy group of Collison, Durant, Harden, Daequan Cook and Eric Maynor, that may have saved Oklahoma City's season.
While All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook watched from the bench, that unit increased the Thunder's lead to 10 points with just over three minutes to play in the final period. It then fended off the Mavericks with timely stops and some key free throws to preserve a 106-100 victory.
"Our bench has to be as good as theirs or better," Durant said. "Tonight was a perfect case of that."
This is a series now, one Oklahoma City firmly believes it can win. There was no hangover from that Game 1 loss, no fear that containing Dirk Nowitzki would be an impossible task. The Thunder had a lengthy film session on Wednesday. They watched cut after cut of Nowitzki carving them up, of J.J. Barea and Jason Terry going over, under and around screens for uncontested jump shots. Stay close on Terry and Barea, Brooks told his team. Front Nowitzki more, play with your bodies and not your hands. Push him off his spots.
"I told our guys before the game [that] playing perfect is impossible," Brooks said. "But playing hard is possible."
"They outplayed us in every possible way," Barea said of Game 2. Indeed, that's hard to argue. Barea (11 points) and Terry (eight) shot with hands in their faces all night. Nowitzki still got his -- 29 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter -- but he worked for each bucket. He had just seven attempts through three quarters, a shockingly low number considering the German's effectiveness in a 48-point performance in Game 1. He saw a steady diet of forearms and hip checks from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins and, with the game on the line, had Collison crawling up his shirt.
But even as Nowitzki found a rhythm in the fourth quarter, the Mavericks couldn't slow Oklahoma City's. Whether it was Cook from behind the three-point line, Durant from the high post or Harden from, well, everywhere, the Thunder couldn't be stopped. The bench chipped in 50 points, including 23 from Harden and 13 from Maynor, compared to 29 for Dallas. With Westbrook sitting the entire fourth quarter, Maynor managed the game. He had only one assist in the final 12 minutes, but his measured, turnover-free game was all Oklahoma City needed.
"Eric had our whole group going," said Durant, who scored 24 points. "Five guys on the floor, all in sync, playing as one."
There is no controversy brewing in Oklahoma City, at least not as to who will start. "Russell is our starter," Brooks said. Whether he finishes is another question. Thursday night was vintage Westbrook, spectacular at times, erratic far too often. His stat line wasn't terrible -- 18 points, four assists, four turnovers -- but it doesn't reflect the quick shots, the poor decisions and the hold-your-breath moments when he takes off in the open floor. Maynor doesn't have Westbrook's gifts, and he can't take over in critical moments. But he won't make many plays that hurt you, and that's something Brooks will have to consider.
Westbrook insisted that the benching didn't upset him -- "I'm good," he said -- which matters because Oklahoma City can't win without him. He had his moments in Game 2, just not enough of them. It's a familiar refrain: Be more careful with the ball, more judicious with your shots and never, ever forget that you have Durant on the floor.
There is a killer in Westbrook, an elite player just itching to get out. Someday the blurring drives he makes to the rim will end in layups or dunks and the short jump shots will consistently fall. But until then Brooks will have to watch him closely and make sure the bad plays don't outnumber the good. Benching Westbrook for Maynor was a tough call, but the right one. It's a decision elite coaches make. A label Brooks is starting to grow into.