The Oklahoma City Thunder doesn't look subpar against many teams in the NBA. In all reality, there may be just two franchises that operate better and those two are playing in the NBA Finals starting on Thursday.
San Antonio in particular is looked at as the standard for the Thunder to live up to, thanks to Thunder GM Sam Presti's humble beginnings in the San Antonio front office, and the terrific battles the Thunder and Spurs have waged on the court over the past couple of years.
Now, after falling to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, it's time for the Thunder to learn from their elders again. This time, it's Thunder coach Scott Brooks who can learn the most from his counterpart, Gregg Popovich.
Saturday night in Game 6, with the Thunder's season on the line, Brooks played six players 21 or more minutes. He played Steven Adams for 12, Jeremy Lamb for six and Nick Collison for two. Thabo Sefolosha and Perry Jones played the last four seconds of the first half for defensive purposes.
In the biggest game of the year, Brooks left it up to his stars and that was it. He decided no one else could be trusted in a game the Thunder had to have to continue playing in 2014.
Meanwhile, Popovich played nine players at least 10 minutes and two more played in the game. Marco Belinelli, despite just six minutes of action, buried a 3-pointer with eight minutes left that felt like a dagger at the time. How could two teams, fighting for the same thing, take two very different approaches?
Popovich demands a lot from his players and coaches them to know their roles and execute those roles flawlessly. The Spurs have a system in place that allows the team to be successful if everyone executes their roles.
It doesn't matter if Tony Parker is out for the entire second half and overtime like he was on Saturday. The Spurs simply used Patty Mills and Cory Joseph, as well as, Manu Ginobili at the point the rest of the game. San Antonio didn't miss a beat. In fact, the Spurs outscored the Thunder by 17 in the third quarter immediately after learning Parker had been lost.
Popovich will play you until you do things right. There are times when Pop will sit players for not doing their jobs, but they quickly learn their lessons.
Brooks doesn't take the same approach as Popovich. If his players haven't proven themselves and Brooks doesn't trust them, he doesn't play them. Period. It doesn't matter their experience or age, as Caron Butler found out the hard way on Saturday. You don't produce, you don't play for Scotty Brooks.
Take poor Jeremy Lamb for example. From a pure basketball standpoint, Lamb is probably the fifth-most talented player on the roster. Yet he has barely seen the floor in the second half of the season because of the Butler acquisition and who knows what else.
Lamb could be a great piece for the Thunder, spreading the floor for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but when will he get that opportunity.
If Brooks wants his young players to be perfect in practice before they see significant minutes, we'll never see them and instead will be treated to an endless parade of veterans like Derek Fisher, who are great leaders and teammates, but are way past their prime.
Brooks needs to throw his guys in the fire and let them learn the hard way — if they don't do their job, the team is going to suffer and lose games. Knowing a loss is close to entirely your fault is pretty good motivation to work hard and not let it happen again.
The Thunder has imitated the Spurs in many different ways over the years. It's time Brooks imitated Pop in this way as well.