WASHINGTON — With 7½ minutes left to play Monday night at Boston, Scott Brooks subbed in Thabo Sefolosha for the same reason he always does whenever the shooting guard is reinserted in the final period.
“I knew we had to have that defender on the floor,” Brooks said.
The Thunder coach looked to his Swiss stopper to help slow two future Hall of Famers in Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. But what Brooks didn't anticipate is the boost Sefolosha would supply at the opposite end of the floor.
Sefolosha scored 12 of his season-high 19 points in the fourth quarter, surprising the sold out TD Garden crowd with his offensive eruption and late-game sharpshooting. With the Celtics keying on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Sefolosha stepped up and hit two 3-pointers in the final 2:01 to help secure the Thunder's 97-88 win.
In the process, Sefolosha showed his outside shot, which last season was a liability, has been sharpened to the point where it is now inching closer to becoming a weapon.
“Thabo's worked,” Brooks said. “One of the things he wanted to do was come back a better shooter, and he's shot the ball well. In fairness to him, we don't ask him to take a lot of shots.”
The important thing is Sefolosha has made the most of the opportunities he's been given. Entering Tuesday night's games, Sefolosha led the league in 3-point field goal percentage at 60 percent — ranking 0.26 percentage points ahead of Allen, the player that 85.7 percent of GMs who participated in a recent NBA.com survey cited as the league's best pure shooter. By the end of the night, Denver's Corey Brewer (62.5 percent) had passed both.
“I'm happy for him, because he never gets a lot of credit other than from his teammates and me,” said Brooks. “But he does so many things well. It's not easy to guard the best players in the world every night and not get a whole lot of rewards on the offensive end. But he never complains. Those are the guys that you win with.”
Sefolosha's role always will be centered on bringing a defensive disposition to the start of the game. But the Thunder struggled last season, especially in the playoffs, when Sefolosha's shooting struggles allowed defenses to play off him and pack the paint against Durant and Westbrook.
In the regular season, Sefolosha made a career-worst 27.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. In the postseason, Sefolosha was just 4-for-26, a ghastly 15.4 percent.
Thus far, Sefolosha has drained 12 of 20 3-pointers, a modest start but one that could soon carry major significance.
“It helps,” Brooks said. “With Thabo, I'm confident in him, and our team is and he is, too.”
As important as Sefolosha's perimeter shooting has been, his overall offensive game is just as critical. Sefolosha is one of three defensive-oriented players in the Thunder's starting lineup, which puts enormous pressure at times on Durant and Westbrook, a duo that has combined for 45.4 percent of the Thunder's scoring. Throw in sixth man James Harden, and three Thunder players are responsible for 61.8 percent of the scoring load.
That's where Sefolosha's career-best 54.3 percent field-goal percentage comes into play. No longer are his errant hoists hampering his team's offense. Instead, his improved accuracy is now mixing up the attack at times on opposing defenses.
“I've done a lot of work so there's no way I should not be confident about it,” Sefolosha said of his offense. “I'm going out there and just trying to knock down shots.”
Sefolosha stopped short of saying he's now confident enough to consider himself the second coming of Durant. But he did admit that it feels good to be able to put the ball in the basket every once in awhile.
“It does,” Sefolosha said. “I'm not gonna lie.”
Sefolosha will need to stay ready, too, because his teammates will keep hitting him when he's open. They've proven in the past that even during Sefolosha's most dismal shooting slumps, no one will lose faith in him. Now, their confidence is paying dividends.
Sefolosha went 4-for-4 in the fourth quarter Monday night largely because he received two assists from Durant and one apiece from Westbrook and rookie Reggie Jackson.
“He works hard, man, and he gives us his all every single game,” Durant said. “It was just a matter of time before he started to come around and make those. And we really rely on him to make those. It doesn't matter if he misses four or five in a row. I'm still going to pass him the ball if he's open. He's shooting them with confidence and that's the reason he's knocking them down.”