By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — Since everybody else with an armchair coaching degree lobs criticism at the Thunder’s Scott Brooks, including, apparently, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Brooks figured he might as well sneak in a dig of his own.
During his team’s series-evening blowout of the San Antonio Spurs in Tuesday’s Game 4, guard Reggie Jackson rolled his ankle early in the first quarter. Brooks was asked his thought process as Jackson hopped around in pain and feared potentially to be out of commission.
“I was a little worried with Reggie when he hurt it in the first few minutes,” Brooks said. “I didn’t want to make a change in the lineup to get ridiculed, so I wanted to make sure I could get him a couple more possessions.”
It was a rare shot of snarkiness from Brooks, who took to the postgame podium moments after Spurs coach Gregg Popovich belittled a reporter for asking a supposedly inaudible question because, as Popovich suggested, the questioner was oddly speaking with a mouthful of food. Brooks’ public speaking consists almost exclusively of monotone, mostly polite and low-key responses.
He rarely, if ever singles out players for criticism and steadfastly sticks to a script of optimistic, team-oriented answers. He consistently deflects credit onto his players and almost never inserts himself into the equation.
“No, that was a joke,” Brooks insisted of his spontaneous postgame wit after the Thunder’s light workout Wednesday. “That was my sense of humor. It’s a little dry at times.”
Maybe. But it did seem to reveal that Brooks is not only well-aware of the media and fan chatter that chastises everything from his offensive scheme (what scheme?) to his in-game adjustments (what adjustments?), and, perhaps, he’s getting a little tired of letting it roll down his back.
For instance, after making a successful lineup change in Game 3, using Jackson in the starting lineup for slumping shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, Brooks was criticized for not doing it sooner. Some still believe if the Thunder lose this series, Brooks should lose his job.
It can certainly make one of the three longest-tenured coaches in the league not named Popovich edgy. Over the last seven seasons, Brooks has developed one of the youngest teams in the league into a perennial contender that is now playing in its third Western Conference finals in four seasons.
He bowed out in the second round last season after losing Russell Westbrook, and fell behind the Spurs 0-2 in this series without Serge Ibaka. Now he has the Thunder two wins away from a second NBA Finals appearance in three seasons.
“I love what I do, I’m competitive, but I don’t feel that,” Brooks said. “We are fighting for something special and we feel that we have a great opportunity. If it comes across as edgy…”
Brooks didn’t finish the thought.
That feistiness fueled the 5-foot-11 point guard from the rural Central Valley of California to a 10-year NBA career with six teams. Brooks mustered only a single scholarship offer from TCU, practically a world away in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I had to,” Brooks said of being a feisty, hyper-competitive player. “I was 5-11 with no skill. I wanted to fight everybody I played against.”
Homesick and, he says, lovesick — Brooks eventually married his sweetheart back home — he lasted one season, 1983-84, at TCU before heading back to California where he’d play a season at a community college near where he grew up. Then he transferred south to California-Irvine in Orange County.
He wanted to play near home at Pacific University in Stockton, Calif., but was offered nothing more than a walk-on opportunity. So again he was on the move, just like he seemed to be every couple of years as an NBA player. His stint as the Thunder’s coach is the most stability he’s known since he left East Union High School in Manteca, Calif.
He hasn’t keep his job by being bad at what he does, even if credit is rarely free-flowing. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was lauded in the first round for his defensive schemes that temporarily wrenched San Antonio’s crisp offense and pushed the Spurs to seven games.
Brooks is seeking his second playoff series win over Popovich. He’s 1-1 against Carlisle, and he’s won series against George Karl, Doc Rivers and Lionel Hollins.
He has been with Durant and Nick Collison for seven seasons now (one as an assistant in Seattle), Westbrook for six and Ibaka for five. The Thunder certainly carry on traits of their leader from his own playing days — feisty, determined, relentless — even if nobody outside the organization seems to recognize it.
During his MVP speech, Durant said Brooks seeks none of the credit and deserves all of it.
“You can tell how much he wants to win just watching from the sideline, how animated he is, how enthused he is going back to the huddles,” Durant said. “You can tell he loves the game of basketball, loves to be out on the floor, loves to see his players work and grow.”
At practices, he can be as hard-charging as he was as a player. He encourages his players to go all-out against each another, and he’ll often spur such instances by pitting his two stars against one another during drills and scrimmages. Brooks is also as apt to become terse with Durant or Westbrook during a workout as much as with a player at the end of the bench.
“You could say that, yeah,” Durant said, grinning. “Me and him get into it a lot from just going back and forth, but that’s just a healthy relationship. “It’s a great relationship we have, and I’m growing as a player and he’s growing as a coach. It’s just fun to see.”