For the first time during the NBA Finals, it was the Oklahoma City Thunder that jumped out to a big 17-point first quarter lead in Game 4. Desperation seemed to be the recipe, but so did a starting lineup of players who came out with a clear focus on both ends of the floor. As has been the case through four games, though, OKC head coach Scott Brooks elected once again to let Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra dictate his lineup.
In other words, when Miami goes with LeBron James at the four spot, Brooks counters by taking Kendrick Perkins out of the game. His thought process is that by going small and using Kevin Durant at power forward, only then can the Thunder keep up with the speed game. His game plan, however, just hasn't worked.
"I don't understand why we start out the first quarter the way we did [up 17 points] with the lineup we had, and all of a sudden we change and adjust to what they had going on," Perkins said after his team's 104-98 Game 4 loss. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Perkins has never been the sexiest player on the OKC roster, but his presence in the middle has been a crucial part to the team's success; GM Sam Presti traded for him precisely to protect the paint against an attacking team like the Heat.
For Spoelstra, who has been pigeonholed at times as a lame-duck coach without a handle on his roster, finding success with a small lineup may be as much by default as it is by preference; he simply doesn't have the luxury of a big man like Perkins who can clog the middle. "You know, this team, the way it was built, it forced all of us to look at it differently, even the players that we wanted to acquire," Spoelstra said on Monday.
Brooks, meanwhile, has a deeper bench with far more flexibility, but he simply isn't using it correctly.
Case in point: Serge Ibaka is a vastly improved player and potential All-Star, but has been far less effective playing at center than he is at power forward. Nick Collison was sensational during the early stages of Game 4, scoring six quick points while playing solid interior defense. Yet Collision only played 17 minutes for the night, while Derek Fisher played 22 pedestrian minutes without scoring a point or recording an assist -- and most of those minutes came at the expense of Thabo Sefolosha. Perkins meanwhile, played a mere 18 minutes despite being the only player on OKC to have a positive plus-minus ratio.
To be fair, Brooks is not entirely to blame for his team being in its current 3-1 predicament. He hasn't missed all of those free throws and isn't responsible for scoring extraordinaire James Harden suddenly becoming a timid offensive player. But Brooks is the coach, and failing to make the adjustment from small ball back to his normally bruising lineup (OKC played small lineups for 35 minutes in Game 4) has become a glaring issue.
Even if he were to change his approach now, it may already be too late; no team in league history has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the finals.
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