The Thunder’s Big Three couldn’t stay in their seats.
Oklahoma City was down three early in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game against the L.A. Clippers. But in the span of four plays, a lineup composed entirely of reserves flipped the tables on the Clippers, energizing their star-studded players sitting on the bench in the process.
Jerami Grant rebounded a Josh Huestis block on Lou Williams and then finished a layup on the other end after being fouled. It was enough to get Paul George up and clapping. On the next possession, Grant blocked a shot himself and then finished another layup. Suddenly, the whole bench was showering praise on the scrappy unit. By the time Raymond Felton and Patrick Patterson made shots of their own on the next two Thunder possessions to make it an 8–0 run, Russell Westbrook was frantically pumping his fists while trying to put on his warm-up shirt. Not only were the Thunder winning the game, they were passing the body-language test with flying colors.
Westbrook returned with more than seven minutes left, but the game was already won. It was the Thunder’s eighth win in a span of 10 games, including two straight in Los Angeles.
Since December 16, the Thunder have boasted the league’s most efficient offense. And while the team relied heavily on its defense early on, in this span, the starting unit and the bench unit rank among the 10 best lineups in offensive efficiency.
Forty games in, the Thunder aren’t perfect — as evidenced by a 114–100 loss Sunday to the Suns — but they seem to have found a groove. And while the Big Three has largely been the engine for the team’s recent success, OKC’s role players — from notables like Steven Adams to rookie Terrance Ferguson — have also started to figure out life filling in around the stars.
As Westbrook paced the visiting locker room at Staples Center, AirPods in his ears, whistling and singing an incoherent tune, Alex Abrines sat in a nearby locker pondering a question about the Thunder’s tumultuous start. “I think it was hard to get together as a team and find out how we were supposed to play,” he said.
Abrines, like Adams, is one of the few holdovers left from last season’s team, when everything revolved around the eventual MVP. This time, things are a bit different.
“It was really complicated to get used to the different style,” Abrines said about this season. “And the [media] attention, too.”
On a team featuring an All-Star trinity of Melo, Westbrook, and George, it’s hard to find time to devote to everyone else. With Abrines recently falling to the fringes of the rotation, Adams and Andre Roberson are the front line of the Thunder’s “others.” Roberson has missed the past four games with a knee injury, but he’s been one of the team’s — and the league’s — best defenders when on the court. Meanwhile, Adams is the pillar of consistency for this team.
The center from New Zealand is having a career season, averaging 13.5 points per game, 8.7 rebounds, and 32.1 minutes while shooting 63.4 percent from the field. That number edges out Adams’s shooting percentage from 2015–16, when he hit 61.3 percent of his shots. Head coach Billy Donovan believes there’s a connection between the two seasons.
Last season Adams was pulled away from the basket. He shot nearly half of his field goals from the midrange area, at a rate below 50 percent. This season, much like in 2015–16, he’s taking over 70 percent of his shots from inside 3 feet; not surprisingly, he’s hitting over 65 percent of them this season, much like he did two years ago.
“[Adams] was put into a role last year that was a lot different for him,” Donovan said. “This year, he’s playing more to how he played when I first got here than a year ago. He’s rolling to the basket, he’s catching the ball in the pocket, making some passes, making his floater, he’s running the floor, and he’s getting some deep seals.”
It won’t show up in the box score like Westbrook’s triple-doubles, but Adams does the dirty work for OKC, like setting screens. Adams credits the team’s recent improvement to simple execution, but also the extra time they’ve played together. As far as the changes in the system go, Adams doesn’t think much about them.
“If you can’t adjust to a different system,” he told me, “then you shouldn’t be in this league.”
One day before the Thunder’s bench provided the edge the team needed against the Clippers, Ferguson stole the show. With star-level flair, the rookie drained six 3s and scored 24 points in a dominant 133–96 win.
Terrance Ferguson with his Dunk Contest application ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/e7YPxtHDr1— Dime on UPROXX (@DimeUPROXX) January 4, 2018
“I think Carmelo and I were more excited about the [extra] rest being on the bench,” George said. “[Ferguson]’s a special weapon and a special talent.”
Ferguson started the next two games for the Thunder, finishing with 11 points then two points on a combined 5-for-17 shooting (29.4 percent). Ferguson won’t be able to fill Roberson’s void on the defensive end, but if he shoots more like his first game, he’ll still be able to make an impact. “On that team, every different guy that can make a shot makes their key guys harder to guard,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said.
Ever since the days of Kevin Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder have been searching for a serviceable 2-guard who can excel on both sides of the floor. There was Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, and Jeremy Lamb. Roberson has been a starter for the past three seasons, but the career 26 percent 3-point shooter and 48 percent free throw shooter leaves a lot to be desired on offense.
Abrines, who shoots 38 percent from 3, has played well at times, but his defense has been an issue and his shooting inconsistent. Despite his youth, Ferguson, given his 3-point potential and natural length, may have the most upside of the bunch. For all the talk about how the Big Three is melding, Ferguson’s short-term development may be an underrated key to the Thunder’s experiment becoming a success.
“They all want it to work,” Donovan said of the Big Three. “I think they’re starting to figure out inside of what we’re trying to do offensively, where they can be aggressive and take those shots and attack, and go be who they are. I think it took some time for us to figure it out.”
Yet even in the midst of their best stretch of the season, Adams knows maintaining this level of play won’t be enough.
“If we play like this in the playoffs,” he said before taking a long pause, “we stand no chance.”
The Thunder, who lost to the Suns, Mavericks, and the Knicks without Kristaps Porzingis — i.e., three teams full of “others” — amid this encouraging run should know that better than anyone.