Thunder coach Scott Brooks weighs starting lineup change for Game 3 against Spurs
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Facing a 2-0 series deficit after back-to-back blowout losses, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is considering a starting lineup change for Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs.
"We've made changes before. I think it's definitely -- we have some time to think about that," Brooks said after practice on Saturday. "I don't have to get into the specifics right now. The game is over 30 hours from now. We have some time. We'll see."
Brooks used a starting lineup of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins in Games 1 and 2, with Collison taking the place of power forward Serge Ibaka, who is sidelined with a calf injury. That group was responsible for Oklahoma City's best stretch of the series, a nice push early in the third quarter of Game 1, but otherwise has been outplayed by its San Antonio counterparts.
"We have to figure out ways to [play better as a group]," Brooks continued. "If changes to the starting lineup are going to help that, we have to explore that. We have to make sure we play better as a group first before we start saying lineups need to be changed. I'm not saying that [changes] might not happen. We still have some time to think about that."
It's possible that a lineup change would simply accommodate the return of Ibaka, who was surprisingly upgraded to "day-to-day" on Friday, one week after the Thunder announced he was expected to miss the rest of the postseason. Oklahoma City has been dominated inside against San Antonio -- conceding 120 points in the paint through two games -- and it would surely welcome back their Defensive Player of the Year candidate if he's able to play.
"When the gym doctor told me I'm going to be out for the rest of the playoffs, I wasn't believing it, because I believe in God," Ibaka said on Saturday. "I know I'm here for a reason, and so I want to just keep pushing, keep putting ice, do what I can do, what I can control.
"I'm waiting for the team doctor to confirm [if I can play in Game 3]. It's day by day. I cannot say how I feel. I'm waiting [to see] what the doctor [is] going to tell me and how my body is going to feel. Let's see how I'm going to wake up [Sunday]."
Ibaka, who participated in individual workouts rather than going through the full practice with his teammates, added that it was "100 percent going to hurt" if did play but that he was "feeling better every day."
"I don't know what his status is," Durant said of Ibaka. "I've heard some stuff, but I don't know. But we're preparing like he's not playing because that's what he said before we started the series."
Another potential switch could see Brooks bench Sefolosha in favor of Caron Butler. SI.com argued after Game 1 that Sefolosha should be removed from the starting lineup. The veteran Swiss guard has yet to score against San Antonio, shooting 0-9 from the field, and he's grabbed just two rebounds in 26 minutes combined during the first two games.
In 23 total minutes together this series, Oklahoma City's starters have been outscored by San Antonio's lineups by 14 points. The group has shot just 32.6 percent while on the court together and has posted an anemic 80.3 offensive rating against a 104.6 defensive rating.
Sefolosha's offensive limitations have stood out to a greater degree in Ibaka's absence, as Perkins and Collison are not known as scorers. The collective drag of three non-scorers has forced Durant and Westbrook to shoulder extra responsibility on offense, and they combined for just 30 points (on 14-for-40 shooting) as Oklahoma City scored a season-low 77 points in Game 2.
"It's unfair to label Nick and Perk and Thabo, that they need to score more," Brooks said. "As a group, we need to play better for longer stretches against one of the best teams. We're not asking for guys all of a sudden to be a 15-point scorer and block shots, we're just asking the group to play better."
Butler, meanwhile, is averaging nine points (on 42.9 percent shooting) and four rebounds in two games against the Spurs. For the postseason, the veteran forward, who was picked up by Oklahoma City in March, is averaging 6.8 points and 3.3 rebounds on 32.3 percent shooting.
Although Butler hasn't necessarily been lighting things up, swapping him in could provide an offensive boost. If the Thunder do get Ibaka back and opt for Butler over Sefolosha, they would be starting one of their most successful lineups of the postseason. The Westbrook, Butler, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins combination is Oklahoma City's third-most used lineup of the playoffs, and it has posted an outstanding +24.8 net rating in 42 minutes together. The Thunder's offensive rating has been strong with that quintet, and they've shot 52.2 percent from the field during the postseason.
Even if Ibaka doesn't return, it's unclear why Brooks would hang on to the punchless Sefolosha with the Thunder's season hanging in the balance. The Spurs have done well to run him off the three-point line, and he hasn't yet found a way to contribute in other areas. Keeping two big men on the court to shore up the interior is a must for the Thunder, a fact that seemingly requires the threat of a scoring punch to come from a perimeter adjustment.
What's more, the Thunder have previously made this very change with nothing but success to show for it. Brooks inserted Butler in favor of Sefolosha during Oklahoma City's first-round series against Memphis. Staring down a 3-2 series deficit, Brooks turned to Butler for Games 6 and 7, both of which the Thunder won by double digits.
Oklahoma City then returned to its usual starting lineup -- Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins -- for their Western Conference semifinals series against the Clippers, which they took in six games. Ibaka was injured during the Game 6 victory.
San Antonio, meanwhile, has used the same starting lineup for the entire 2014 playoffs: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. Although the Spurs have regularly blown open games with their deep and talented bench during this postseason run, their starters have posted an offensive rating of 103.9 and a defensive rating of 93 in 139 minutes during the playoffs. Indeed, the Spurs starters' continuity, inside/outside balance and star power have proven to be for a stiff test for their opponents all season long, as the group enjoyed an outstanding +14.6 net rating this year.