State of the Thunder: Taking opportunities

OKLAHOMA CITY – With the Thunder running away from the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City bench got some major minutes.

The Thunder led by as many as 28 points and all five starters got to sit and watch the entire fourth quarter.

That meant another opportunity for DeAndre Liggins and Reggie Jackson. It meant another night on the bench for Eric Maynor. Thunder coach Scott Brooks seems to be high on Liggins, the second-year guard from Kentucky and Jackson, the second-year guard from Boston College.

The opposite seems to be the case about Maynor, the fourth-year guard, one-time playoff savior and back-up to Russell Westbrook.

Liggins played nearly 20 minutes Wednesday against the Nuggets a game after making his first career start against Portland. Jackson also played 20 minutes after playing 14 against Portland and 15 against the Lakers. Meanwhile, Maynor has slipped below bottom-of-the-rotation status.

Hard to argue either is the wrong move.

Liggins had a triple-double earlier this season for the D-League Tulsa 66ers and he had 11 points and nine rebounds in 40 minutes against Portland – all career highs.

“I’m proud of him,” Brooks said of Liggins. “He hasn’t got a lot of minutes and he made the team by fighting. He gets out there and competes and he’s gotten some opportunities and taken advantage of it. He just plays so hard. It’s hard not to enjoy the way he plays and cheer for the guy. I just like the way he prepares and competes.”

And then this on Maynor:

“It’s hard to play 13 guys,” Brooks said. “I wanted to see the other young guys play. I know what Eric does. And he’s been very professional in a tough situation. He wants to be out there and playing with our guys. But he still works and he’s still waiting for an opportunity. And usually it comes around if you just keep working and staying positive and he has.”

The opportunities are now there for Liggins as well as Jackson, and not just mop-up minutes, either. Both played in the first quarter Wednesday and both have seen action in all of the last five games. Maynor has a total of 10 minutes of game time in the last five games, scoring no points. That includes no minutes against Portland in a game where starters Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka didn’t play, due to injury.

No one is calling for Maynor to play more. Oklahoma City is 31-8 and has the best record in the NBA. Clearly, the moves being made are the right ones. Meanwhile, Jackson is an exceptional playmaker who can also score. He is averaging 28 points per game in three starts in the D-League. He had eight points, seven assists, six rebounds and just one turnover in 20 minutes Wednesday.

The numbers back up Brooks. Expect Liggins and Jackson to keep getting minutes. Don’t expect much more from Maynor.

Who’s Hot: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is playing some great basketball. He scored 32 points in less than 28 minutes against Denver a game after scoring 36 on 14-of-24 shooting against Phoenix. More impressive, though, is Westbrook had just one turnover in the past two games and shot 26 for 40.

Who’s Not:
Let’s go with Serge Ibaka. Write it off to injury, as he is still dealing with a chest contusion that caused him to miss two games and part of the game against the Lakers last Friday. Ibaka returned Wednesday against Denver and had just five points on only five shots. He did block five shots. He said he was doing OK, so just give it a bit of time. 

Three Thoughts

1. When it comes to the Thunder, I generally think about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook first. I don’t think defense, despite the fact coach Scott Brooks talks about it continuously. Well, maybe he’s right about saying his team focuses on defense first.

The Thunder are eighth in the league in points allowed and second in field-goal percentage defense. They held Portland to 83 points and 36-percent shooting in last Sunday’s win. When you can score like Oklahoma City does (No. 1 in the league), you forget sometimes about a defense that is doing its part, too.

2. Might be time to appreciate this run by Westbrook and Durant. The two combined to score 77 points against Phoenix, including 47 of OKC’s 51 second-half points and then went for 24 of the team’s first 26 points Wednesday against the Nuggets. Durant had 41, including 19 in the fourth quarter against Phoenix. Westbrook had a season-high 36 points. They totaled 52 points against Denver. That kind of production from two of the top players in the league makes the Thunder really hard to beat. But you knew that already.

3. This team is better than it was a season ago when it made the NBA Finals. More on that in this space on Monday, but it’s pretty clear the Thunder haven’t taken any sort of step backward. Durant is leading the way and he’s having a career year in nearly every category. Serge Ibaka has improved and Westbrook has done everything expected.

News and Notes

• It’s easy to pick on Kendrick Perkins, but he had a season-high 13 rebounds against Phoenix and now has 10 or more rebounds three times in the last six games. He is averaging six per game.

•The Thunder are 18-4 when Durant and Westbrook each score 20 or more points. The Thunder are 9-0 when Durant scores 35 or more points.

• Good defensive work against the Nuggets on Wednesday, particularly against Denver energy guy Kenneth Faried. He finished with just five rebounds, half his average.

• Durant had a huge dunk late in the fourth quarter against Phoenix center Marcin Gortat. Gortat didn’t fret. He took it pretty well when he said this to The Oklahoman:

“Well first of all, I was looking for my car keys under the basket. I was trying to find my car keys because I lost them over there so I was just looking for them. And Michael Beasley is going to get Krispy-Kreme for the rest of the season for sure, from me. I mean it happens. The funny thing is that when (Kendrick) Perkins was standing under the basket he looked at me and I looked at him and he said, ‘I know how it feels.’ He said, ‘Guards left you on the island, huh?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ Listen, it happens. I am not going to deny that was probably the top three dunks of the year. Right? I mean at least I am going to be out there. I mean, I am just going to try to be silly about it. I am not going to cry. It is just part of the game.”

Quotable

“I was still marveling at that play three or four possessions later. It was a great play by him. The guy was pressuring him so he made a good move. I’m sure you’re going to see that on a highlight.”


Kevin Durant on Kendrick Perkins who faced his opponent on an isolation and scored on a face-up, dribble drive.

“There’s always those three, four or five games a year that you can’t get it going and tonight we couldn’t get it going. The Thunder played with a high level of commitment. They wanted to kick our butts and they did.”


Denver coach George Karl after Wednesday’s 117-97 loss in Oklahoma City.

Up next: Tough stretch ahead starting Friday at Dallas. After Dallas, the Thunder will be at Denver on Sunday and then at the Clippers and Golden State. That’s a tough week against three playoff teams.

Tower of Power? Oklahoma City has now won five games in a row by an average of 14.6 points. Just goes to show the Thunder are playing at a high level. We’ll see if it continues as they go on their longest road trip of the season.

Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman