To start the second quarter Tuesday night against the Lakers, Scotty Brooks went with his latest version of the B Team: Kevin Martin, Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher and Ronnie Brewer. Notably, the Lakers sported a lineup that included Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.
The Thunder B team played for almost five minutes — 4:51 — and when Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins returned, to be joined 30 seconds later by Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — the Thunder lead had grown from 37-28 to 51-36. That’s a 14-8 edge. Martin hit two foul shots, Collison sank a jumper, Jackson scored on a fast break, Martin swished a 3-pointer, Collison laid in a basket off a Martin assist and finally Fisher nailed a 3-pointer. Meanwhile, the Lakers made just three of nine shots, with one turnover.
Later in the quarter, when fouls mounted, Brooks turned to Hasheem Thabeet, and the NBA’s tallest player produced more than five minutes of quality play — a basket, an assist and two offensive rebounds.
“I think our bench was really good tonight,” Durant said. “Fish came in and made some good shots, Reggie was great on the pick and roll, Hasheem had a really great game, so our bench was really good and gave us the lift we needed when the first group struggled a little bit. It was a good win.”
By game’s end, the Thunder bench had outscored the Lakers’ 19-7, despite another off-night from Martin, who made just three of 12 shots, including 3-of-11 from 3-point range. And the bench didn’t just excel in their second-quarter stint as a unit.
Jackson was excellent, playing 13:08 with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, two assists and two rebounds. And Jackson produced two of the game’s biggest plays, a driving dunk after the Lakers cut their deficit to 106-99, then a drive after Metta World Chaos’ 3-pointer drew the Lakers within six. Of course, Jackson is tailor-made to excel against LA; the Lakers have no answer for his quickness.
“Jackson gave them a really big boost with two big buckets just when it felt like we got ourselves back in the game,” Kobe said. Kobe said the Lakers have the depth to compete with the Thunder — which is certainly debatable — “but we don’t have the athleticism that they do, so if we allow them to play to their strengths and use their athleticism, we’re going to be in trouble. Everybody can get up and down and use their speed to get to the rim. We have to be able to alter that. If we can stay in front of the ball, be solid defensively, we’ll give ourselves a much better chance.”
But that was a major problem. Fisher scored 10 points, and one of his three baskets was a blow-by against Steve Blake. When Fisher is blowing by you, you’ve got problems.
The plus/minus numbers showed the bench’s contribution. Martin was +12, matching Durant for the Thunder-best. Collison was +9, Brewer and Thabeet each +8, Jackson +4. Those have been minuses far too often this season.
“A lot of guys stepped up,” Brooks said. “I thought Brewer’s minutes were good. Hash’s (Thabeet) were good. Fish made big shots, Reggie (Jackson) was really good finishing around the basket and he got the nice dunk.”
Brooks still struggled at times with his rotation. It’s not always easy to know who to play and when to play them. But against the Lakers, there’s an easy solution. If Kobe is on the court, get Thabo on him. And now with Brewer on board, get Thabo or Brewer on Kobe. Yet Brooks twice went for stretches without his defensive aces. And it cost the Thunder.
Kobe played 23:19 with Thabo on the court. In those 23-plus minutes, Kobe scored 14 points and made three of 10 shots. One of his makes was a 21-foot banker. Maybe he meant to bank it, I don’t know.
Kobe played 4:51 with Brewer on the court — and didn’t score. He took only one shot.
So against Thabo and Brewer, Kobe played 28:10 and scored 14 points. But in 11:14 of playing time with Thabo and Brewer out of the game, Kobe scored 16 points and made five of eight shots. Durant did a decent job for a fourth-quarter stretch against Kobe, but when you’ve got weapons like Thabo and Brewer, use them.