So Nick Collison’s replacement in the rotation while he’s out with an injury is … Daequan Cook?
That was the case Wednesday at least on opening night, and I doubt the rotation is anywhere close to set, Collison or no Collison, this early in the year. But Scott Brooks’ decision to go with Cook off the bench was significant for a number of reasons.
The Thunder played 14:51 minutes of small-ball in the 106-95 win against the Bulls by my unofficial count. The Thunder was +6 on the scoreboard in that time span. Perhaps more significantly, Oklahoma City played 8:01 of that small-ball with Kevin Durant in the game at power forward and was +10.
The small-ball came in two spurts bridging the quarters in each half. Cook replaced Jeff Green at the 2:03 mark of the first quarter with the Bulls up 25-23. The Thunder had a lineup of Eric Maynor, Cook, James Harden, Durant and Serge Ibaka. Green subbed for Durant with the Thunder up by six about three minutes into the second quarter, and Westbrook eventually replaced Maynor before Oklahoma City went to a more traditional lineup with 5:58 left in the half. The Thunder had a 43-42 lead for a net gain of three points in about eight minutes of small-ball.
The next small-ball shift began with Cook again subbing for Green with 3:17 left in the third quarter and Chicago up 74-72. The Thunder went back to a more traditional lineup with 8:33 left in the game and a 86-85 lead. The overall +6 could have been even better if Cook knocked down a 3-pointer or two, but he was 0-4 on the night.
That is a solid, if unspectacular, performance in the 2010-11 season’s first game for the small-ball unit. But was this part of a larger plan to work in small-ball, or even just Durant at the four, or just a byproduct of Brooks’ steadfast adherence to the nine-man rotation and Cook as his choice as the temporary ninth man? Either answer could have different implications. A tactical decision based on the Thunder staff’s plan to attack the Bulls — a little thin on dependable size with Carlos Boozer injured — would be a less noteworthy explanation.
If the grand plan is to work in more small-ball but Brooks sticks to a nine-man rotation when Collison comes back, that means either Westbrook or Thabo Sefolosha will see more time in the small-ball unit. That didn’t fit with the substitution patterns Books used Wednesday. Most of the small-ball took place during Westbrook’s designated rest period, and all of it came with Thabo Sefolosha on the bench. One of them has to be the third guard with Maynor and Harden if Cook becomes the 10th guy again and never takes off his warm-ups once Collison comes back.
Cook could also be in the cards even with Collison back if Brooks breaks the nine-man rotation and deploys Cook as a small-ball guy. I’d vote for that. Or he could have been playing because Brooks needed one, and only one, player to take Collison’s minutes while he’s out, and he chose Cook.
Why not Cole Aldrich? Or even D.J. White, the only other post player who dressed? Does that mean anything?
It seems notable that with Collison out, Brooks didn’t go to any other big man on his bench. Byron Mullens was in a suit. Aldrich only got out onto the court to do the traditional opening night pre-game address to the crowd by the prominent rookie. White got no chance to loft his silky jumper.
But it’s also notable that Ibaka’s debut as a rookie last season was a three-minute stint in the second game of the season, then sat for four straight games and didn’t become a significant part of the rotation until late November and early December. Ibaka was pivotal enough to be on the floor (and miss a box out, unfortunately) in the Thunder’s most important minutes of the season in the waning moments of Game 6 against the Lakers, and he was a more unknown variable than Aldrich by far at this point last year.
It should be said over and over again for this and ever other issue of any concern that came out of Wednesday’s win: It’s only one game. There are 81 more. Most reactions are overreactions. But the Thunder’s 15-minute small-ball experiment against the Bulls leaves lots to ponder.