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Sekou Smith

Is it time for Scott Brooks to make a change to a lineup that carried OKC past the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs?
Is it time for Scott Brooks to make a change to a lineup that carried OKC past the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs?
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Brooks has next move in chess match with Spoelstra


Posted Jun 16 2012 12:53AM - Updated Jun 17 2012 11:40AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will play the game. He'll let you ask the question, respond with a vague answer so as not to top his hand and then leave the world hanging until the last minute with whatever his decision is regarding a lineup change or a rotation tweak.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks, on the other hand, has no use for such trivial affairs.

Even with 48 hours to contemplate whatever changes he could make to his rotation between the end of the Thunder's Game 2 loss to the Heat and the start of Game 3 Sunday night in Miami, no one expects Brooks to break from the regimen that has served the Thunder so well to this point.

Brooks is well aware of the struggles Kendrick Perkins has had in this series without another 270-pound big man to grapple with under the basket. He's seen the metrics that make it clear that the Thunder would be better served with a smaller, quicker lineup when the Heat deploy their smaller group.

But that doesn't mean Brooks is willing to make a change based solely on the developments of the past 96 minutes of the season, not when he's weighing them against the previous 3,314 minutes Perkins has played in a Thunder uniform.

Whether it's loyalty to the big man that helped the Thunder turn the corner and make it to the conference finals and The Finals in his two playoff stints with the team or his steadfast believe in going with what got you here, Brooks insisted after Game 2 that he had no intention of changing anything.

"No, not at all," Brooks said when the question was asked. "We just lost 30 minutes ago, so ... I just think we were missing shots. We didn't come out with the defensive toughness, the disposition that we need to play with. We have to do that first, and then if it doesn't work, then we'll think about doing other things. But right now we have to play better from the very start."

Over the course of a regular season, that sort of dedication to the system is usually the prudent choice. Tinkering with the rotation or starting lineup at this point could send all sorts of mixed signals to a young Thunder team that has known only one way since Perkins joined them.

It could also be viewed as a sign of uncertainty, a weakness, of sorts, another chink in the Thunder's armor that the Heat exposed by making changes of their own after their Game 1 loss when Chris Bosh played off the bench instead of in the starting lineup and the rotation went just six deep.

The Thunder went through the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs using this same lineup. Why wouldn't it work now?

But this is The Finals, where coaching chess matches take place constantly. Spoelstra has already made his move. Now we're going to find out if Brooks is ready to make his. And with all due respect to the work Perkins has done throughout his career, Brooks did leave himself a little wiggle room. He did say that if the Thunder's default setting doesn't work to start Game 3, he'll consider alternatives.

The alternatives are where games, and ultimately championships, are won. The Heat know that better than anyone, having struggled with their adjustments to the Mavericks' small-ball lineups in The Finals last year and watching Jason Terry and J.J. Barea shred them time after time.

So if it takes playing Nick Collison more and Perkins less, playing James Harden sooner rather than later, Brooks knows he has an obligation to think long and hard about his next move.

The Thunder couldn't afford the slow starts on their home floor, where they hadn't lost in the postseason until Game 2. So you know they can't afford to stumble out of the blocks like that in Miami. They've already lost the home court advantage. They can't afford to lose any more ground in this series by ignoring the obvious.

The Heat had to learn the same lesson in the Eastern Conference finals, when they failed to find the right matchup against the Celtics, and All-Star big man Kevin Garnett down low, in particular.

They might not be here if not for a deliberate effort by LeBron James to force the issue in the paint and Bosh's return from injury. They might not have made it back here if adjustments weren't made.

The mismatch that cost them early in that series against the Celtics has now become a mismatch they are exploiting against the Thunder, with Shane Battier and Bosh stretching the floor against Perkins and Serge Ibaka from the opening tip.

"Well, that's one of our advantages," Bosh said. "Shane plays big, but he's a deadly outside shooter. That's what he's been doing for years. As long as we play defense well and get back, we're going to be just fine ... we understand that people are going to tell you how you can't do things, you're too small and all these, I guess, criticisms and everything, but we don't worry about that. We just do our job, and as long as we play defense, rebound and share the ball, we're going to win games."

Well, it takes all that and a few adjustments here and there.

And Brooks is on the clock.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and the author of NBA.com's Hang Time blog. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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