Throughout the OKC Thunder’s demanding and often perplexing playoff run, coach Scott Brooks became the most publicly scrutinized team member, but how Brooks is evaluated privately carries all the influence.
During the team’s first wave of exit interviews on Sunday, a pair of All-Stars stood up for their coach.
“That’s our guy,” NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant said of Brooks. “I’m riding with him. I'm riding with him. It’s easy for everybody on the outside to criticize, but once you’re in the fire, once you're in that arena, those are the guys that matter. The guys that share the blood, sweat and tears, and sleepless nights, those are the guys that count, those are the guys that matter in our book. Everybody on the outside really doesn’t (matter).”
Durant has won four of the last five NBA scoring titles playing for Brooks, who was an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics and spent much of his time instructing Durant during his rookie season after he was selected No. 2 in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Three-time All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook used to be the team’s most publicly ridiculed player for his questionable decision-making and being turnover-prone, but Brooks always stood firmly in the corner of the three-time All-Star.
“Ever since I’ve been here and Scotty became the head coach (after 13 games in the 2008-09 season), he’s done a great job in having confidence in me personally,” Westbrook said. “There’s times where things have gone south and he’s the only one that always, always had my back, regardless of what people were saying. I was doing this or doing that. I was being selfish. He was always the first person to step up and have my back and support me regardless of what’s going on. I just think he does a great job of always staying positive and trusting in our guys and trusting in each and every person we have on our team and around our organization.”
In addition to leading the Thunder to five straight postseasons and three of the last four Western Conference finals, Brooks has won four straight Northwest Division titles and coached in two All-Star Games. Only San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (281-113) has won more games in the last five regular seasons than Brooks, who is tied for second with Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra (271-123).
Spoelstra is making his fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals while Popovich is making his second straight. The Thunder faced the Heat in the NBA Finals two years ago, which set in motion immediate high expectations for a world championship for the team from the league's third-smallest market.
Injuries have derailed apparent back-to-back return runs to the Finals. Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening round of last year’s playoffs and power forward Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of the Western Conference finals against San Antonio with a strained left calf.
Despite its starters missing 79 games due to injuries this season, OKC still finished as the No. 2 seed in the West with a 59-23 record, behind No. 1-seeded San Antonio at 62-20.
The Thunder survived its opening-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies 4-3 and eliminated the Los Angeles Clippers 4-2 in the second round. The Spurs ousted OKC in the conference finals 4-2 with a 112-107 overtime victory Saturday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It’s something I don’t even consider,” Brooks said of his critics. “I just do my job every day. I’ve had a lot of valuable lessons from my mother (Lee, who passed away in January 2013), and she always told me this: ‘You do your job every day and live with the results.’ They say you can’t worry about what ‘they’ say. You never even meet those people.
“I have many stories I could tell you about my mom, and that’s one of them. Don’t worry about ‘them.’ Those are the people that told me I wasn’t going to make it as a 4-(foot)-11 freshman in high school, my dream of being an NBA player. I don’t listen to ‘they.’ I always focus on what I do and try and do it to the best ability I can. … I love what I do, and I love the team I’m with. I know I have to get better and I know the team has to get better.”
The “they” who control Brooks’ destiny are the Thunder’s ownership group and general manager Sam Presti, who will not hold his exit interview until later this week.
Brooks just completed the second year of a four-year deal he signed in July 2012 that reportedly pays him $4.5 million annually.