When the Oklahoma City Thunder trounced the Houston Rockets, 120-91, in Game 1 of the teams' first round playoff series, Houston coach Kevin McHale did what any coach would do; he made adjustments.
Inserting Patrick Beverley into the starting lineup in place of a power forward worked wonders for the Rockets. Every game since has been tight—except for Game 5 Wednesday night—which the Rockets won easily.
Meanwhile, Thunder coach Scott Brooks was faced with the biggest dilemma of his coaching career: trying to win without an injured Russell Westbrook. How did Brooks respond? He plugged Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup and hoped to high heaven Jackson could do something similar to what Westbrook has done to make himself into one of the best players in the NBA.
The loss of Westbrook was going to test everyone in the organization, but the biggest challenge was for Brooks to devise a way to somehow replace even a portion of what Westbrook provided the Thunder. So far, the Thunder head man has not done anything close to positive in order to help OKC overcome that substantial loss.
Brooks appears to be lost on the court, cobbling together lineups in hopes of finding some semblance of what the Thunder had on offense with Westbrook running the point. Some of the lineups Brooks threw at Houston Wednesday night were ones you would expect to see in a blowout win or loss, not in the second quarter of an important playoff game. At the end of the first quarter, the Thunder had Jackson, Kevin Martin, DeAndre Liggins, Nick Collison and Derek Fisher on the floor.
Granted, there have been some positive tweaks to the offense that have helped the Thunder cope with the loss of Westbrook, but the offensive issues revealed by Westbrook's injury stem from a larger problem.
The problem for the Thunder on offense is that there is no system. Oklahoma City does not run the Triangle and Two or the Princeton-style offense or even Dribble-Drive-Motion. Basically, the Thunder gives the ball to Westbrook or Kevin Durant, set some screens, and hopes their explosiveness leads to baskets or open looks for other people. Since the Thunder don't have an offensive system, Brooks is relying on Jackson to create exactly like Westbrook does. The problem is, Jackson doesn't have that ability. With an offensive system, a backup knows what to do, where to go, and how to execute so the team is not affected as drastically when a starter goes down.
The lack of a system is normally overlooked during the regular season because the Thunder typically rolls over teams without any problems. In losses, the problem is exposed, but not thought of as a huge issue that could come back to hinder the team later in the season.
Now, especially with the loss of Westbrook, that problem has been exposed so drastically, it could force Brooks to make major changes going forward. Obviously it's not possible for those changes to be implemented in the playoffs, but there's plenty of time in the offseason.
This doesn't even touch the issues OKC is having on defense, which may be more mystifying than the offensive issues. Westbrook is a good defender, but he's far from the key cog and foundation of the OKC defense. The defensive issues stem from a lack of intensity, but also from the personnel on the court which, of course, falls on Brooks' shoulders.
The Thunder have attempted to go with big lineups, but having Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka play defense on the perimeter has been a disaster. Unfortunately, Brooks feels Perkins is the best bet to guard Houston big man Omer Asik. While that may be true, it takes the Thunder's best screen-and-roll defender and best help defender, Nick Collison, and puts him on the bench. Collison played seven first half minutes Wednesday night before sitting the entire second half.
The Westbrook injury has exposed Oklahoma City's offense for what it is: completely reliant upon the playmaking ability of two of the best players in the league. Something needs to change and if nothing does, it could cost OKC any chance of winning a title in the future.