SALT LAKE CITY –When is it time to pull the vets and play the pups?
That’s the question I asked Scott Brooks following Tuesday’s 104-94 win over Utah at Energy Solutions Arena. It’s a subject that is gaining more and more steam as this season snakes along. The latest and arguably most surprising case for the youngsters came when the Thunder walked into Utah and whipped a veteran Jazz team, leading by as many as 19 points and, with the exception of the final minutes of the second and fourth quarters, played with poise, patience and pride.
With Nick Collison and Kevin Ollie out with knee ailments, the Thunder’s bench unit was comprised of two rookies and one sophomore. Veteran Etan Thomas, the only other reserve to see action, played just nine minutes. Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Kyle Weaver took over the heavy lifting, and they showed they are more than capable of handling the load.
Weaver, who was relegated to the D-League on Saturday and recalled from the Tulsa 66ers hours before tip-off only to provide emergency duty behind starting point guard Russell Westbrook, had played only 15 garbage-time minutes in the Thunder’s first 14 games. Fourteen of those minutes came in one contest. But on Tuesday night, Weaver matched his season total in minutes. And he provided more than just a steady hand. Weaver made plays, pestering Jazz point guards Deron Williams and Eric Maynor with his defense and seamlessly setting up the offense and swishing key shots. He finished with seven points on 2-for-3 shooting. He turned the ball over twice but had a career-high-tying three blocked shots to go with one assist.
Ibaka, meanwhile, continued to be a game-changer around the basket. One game after a career night — an 11-point, 13-rebound, five-block performance against the Lakers — Ibaka pulled down five rebounds and had one steal and one block in 21 minutes. He coolly filled in for Jeff Green when the Thunder’s starting power forward picked up two early fouls. He gobbled up a rebound following a Paul Millsap miss. He netted an 18-footer following a feed from Kevin Durant. He pulled down another board after Mehmet Okur’s missed jumper, giving him two points and two rebounds in just four minutes. Ibaka later spelled a foul-plagued Nenad Krstic and did much of the same. But most impressive was the 20-year-old’s confidence. When the Jazz came alive in the fourth quarter and used a 4-0 spurt to cut the Thunder’s 19-point lead to a tenuous 15 with eight minutes remaining, Ibaka smoothly sank an 18-footer. Thabo Sefolosha then nailed two free throws to push the lead back to 19.
And all James Harden did was bounce back from a woeful performance he turned in two nights earlier that could have rocked the rookie’s confidence. After a 2-for-15 shooting night (0-for-10 from 3) against the Lakers, Harden netted four of five shots and one of two 3-pointers for his 10 points during his 19 minutes. His second-quarter production showed his moxie. He poured in all of his points during a 3 minute, 14 second span that started with the Jazz leading by a point and ended with his 3-pointer that gave OKC a 39-36 lead with 6:54 remaining in the half. The Thunder trailed only twice the rest of the way, both times by just a point.
“Sam Presti, our general manager, has done a great job of finding guys who are competitive,” Brooks said after the game. “You can have talented guys, but if they’re not competitive what good are they? Our guys are competitive. They get better. They get better in practice. It’s a fun group to coach because they compete against each other in practice. Sam has done a good job of putting a good group together.”
So why not play the kids?
“One of the things that Sam and I talk about every day, we have a team that has to earn minutes,” Brooks said.
Translation: the days of PT liberally being handed out ended with Russell Westbrook last season. No longer is the Thunder in the phase of speeding players’ development by awarding extended minutes without merit. Ibaka and Harden are clear cases. Neither figure to unseat Thomas/Collison or Sefolosha so long as those veterans are more consistent and better defensively, no matter how lofty the rookies’ ceilings.
But that doesn’t mean the position battles won’t intensify as the season marches on.
“Guys are competing for minutes and it puts pressure on our guys to come with it every day in practice,” Brooks said. “And it pays off. I think the way guys work in practice pays off and it gives them opportunities to show what they do. And our starters have to be ready because we have guys that can play.”
While the pups wait their turn, the fans will be waiting with bated breath.
- Once again, the player of the game award goes to Thabo Sefolosha. His defense on Deron Williams saved the day. Thunder coach Scott Brooks switched Sefolosha on Williams to start the second half and Williams disappeared. The Jazz looked lost offensively without him.
- Russell Westbrook didn’t seem to care for the switch afterward, not in an angry, bitter, team cancer sort of way. But he spoke as if he would have liked to remain on Williams. I think that’s a good sign that the youngster has that competitive fire in him.
- A few Utah media members, like others along the road this season, gushed about the Thunder’s core after the game.
- Again, Kyle Weaver was extremely steady in a backup point guard role. He was matched up against rookie Eric Maynor to start before Deron Williams was reinserted. He played stout defense on them both and got the Thunder into offensive sets without problem. And he made shots when he needed to.
- Kevin Durant’s season-high eight assists is a testament to his continued development as a playmaker but more than anything the Thunder’s commitment to sharing the ball tonight. Durant made a few really nice drive-and-dish plays. But a lot of his assists came in the flow of the offense, simple passes to guys who were wide open. The Thunder had 25 assists as a team.
- Jeff Green had a nice all-around game. His 19 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals and three 3-pointers were huge. But he played some really nice defense on Mehmet Okur and, at times, Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap.
- Green had a nasty fall on an aggressive drive to the basket with two seconds remaining in the first half. He sat on the court for a minute before taking and making two free throws. Before going into the locker room he lingered on the court and talked with trainer Joe Sharpe about something regarding his left leg. He returned for warm-ups near the end of halftime with his left knee covered with a black wrap. Like he always does, he said he was fine after the game….even though he walked with a limp.
- The Jazz closed the first half on a 10-4 run, a surge that looked to be a momentum-killing swing and made it a one-point game going into the third quarter. But after trading a few early baskets to start the third quarter, the defense tightened up and the Thunder outscored the Jazz 31-16 in the period.
- Jazz fans started booing the home team midway through the third quarter after Russell Westbrook made a 3-pointer to give the Thunder a 75-64 lead.
- OK, I know Mehmet Okur can fill it up. But dude passed Jeff Hornacek for fourth all-time in franchise history with 440 3-pointers. Uh, how did that happen? Where have I been?
- Can someone tell me why Ronnie Brewer isn’t better? Five points, three rebounds, three assists? Two of six shooting? Seems to me Brewer should be Shawn Marion in the making. Athletic as all get out. Pesky defender. Ugly shooting form. I mean, it’s all there.
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on Thabo Sefolosha’s defense on Deron Williams: “Thabo is one of our better defenders. We feel that we can put him on ones, twos and threes. And he does a good job. He just stays with it. Deron is an All-Star player in my mind and he did a good job on him.”
- Brooks on Kevin Durant’s performance: “He’s a special player. He understands the game more each year. It happens that way. He’s working. He’s playing hard. He’s humble. He’s coachable. And our assistant coaches do a great job with him.”
- Brooks on Kyle Weaver: “Kyle was huge tonight. He hasn’t played much and he comes in and does a great job of running the team and making plays. And defensively he had three blocks. He was active. He got a lot of deflections.”
- Brooks on Serge Ibaka: “He’s coming along. I like what he’s doing. He’s going to get in some foul situations because he’s aggressive. But that’s going to work itself out. I like the fact that he’s aggressive and competing and helping his teammates on defense.”
- Brooks on the team’s 3-point shooting: “Anytime we can make some 3s that helps us. We’ve got some guys that can put it on the floor and get to the basket. We have to just continue to work on it and sprinkle it into our game. We have to hit some 3s and get to the free throw line. I thought the key tonight was we really did a good job of moving the ball, sharing the ball, all of our starters had a lot of assists tonight.”
- Jerry Sloan on the Thunder’s improvement: “They are better, much more experienced. They execute their plays and are much, much better defensively. They also really get into the open court and get some easy baskets.”
- Deron Williams on Sefolosha’s defense: “He is a bigger guard, took a lot of things away from me. That is pretty much it. It was just his size and length. I always have bigger guys on me. I just have to be more aggressive next time.”
- Thabo Sefolosha on his team’s performance: “It’s great. We are playing great right now. We’ve got a lot of confidence. Coming in a gym like that and being able to win that game is big for us. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people this year because if we play like that, with the same intensity, we can go far.”
- Sefolosha on his defense on Williams: “That’s my role, playing defense and trying to be that spark on the defensive end. I think tonight the whole team did a great job defensively helping me on Deron Williams and closing down the paint a little bit.
- James Harden on the bench’s play: “I think we all wanted to bounce back from that last game. That wasn’t us. So just going out there and competing. We knew it was going to be a tough game, a very physical game. So we wanted to go out there and compete and help those guys out that were starting.”
- Harden on his bounce-back performance: “It’s good. It’s 82 games. The biggest thing is I can’t go into a slump now. You have to always stay confident. I got up some extra shots yesterday at practice. And I just have to stay focused and keep my mind right.”
- Russell Westbrook on the team’s confidence: “I can tell. When Utah made their run and got within eight, that’s when we came back and got some scores, got some fouls, knocked down free throws and got some stops. That shows maturity as a team.”
- Kevin Durant on Weaver: “That’s good to see. He’s been working his tail off every day in practice and after practice. He came in and gave us some great minutes, great minutes. I’m happy for him.”
BY THE NUMBERS
3: Blocked shots by Kyle Weaver, tying a career-high.
4: Steals by Jeff Green, a career-high.
5: Road wins for the Thunder.
7: Turnovers by Jazz guard Deron Williams, tying his season-high.
19: Biggest lead by the Thunder.
24: Jazz turnovers, 11 more than their average.
25: Thunder assists.
31: Third-quarter points by the Thunder.
17,937: Announced attendance at Energy Solutions Arena.