During the past two games, Scott Brooks has made a subtle change to his crunchtime lineup.
Against both the Kings and Blazers, for stretches of the fourth quarter, Brooks has surrounded his three franchise centerpieces — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — with his two emerging young guns — Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
It's a dynamic and intriguing lineup, where youth and versatility reign. All are under 25. All are plus athletes. And all can hit you with something different and useful on the offensive end.
“You got two of the most athletic point guards in the league, one of the most athletic bigs in the league, Jeremy is smooth and athletic as well,” Kevin Durant said, before pausing for a sudden realization: “And then I'm the least out of the bunch athletic-wise.”
A scary thought for opposing teams, especially considering the entire bunch is expected to remain and grow with the franchise long-term.
But so far, that vast potential hasn't translated well to the court.
In only 29 minutes played together — the bulk of those coming the past two games — the group has a negative plus/minus. And much of that can be attributed to porous defense.
They are giving up 1.08 points per possession, one of the worst among five-man Thunder lineups that have played any kind of significant time together.
Against the Kings, in the final 5 1/2 minutes, they were outscored 15-7, unable to contain shifty Sacramento point guard Isaiah Thomas.
Then against the Blazers, Brooks was forced to abort out of it down the stretch, replacing Lamb with Kendrick Perkins in hopes of containing a red-hot LaMarcus Aldridge.
“Thabo (Sefolosha) is one of the premier defenders,” Brooks said. “Perk is a good defender. So when you take out two very good defenders, it's challenging to be as good … But in a way, I can see improvement in that area defensively. I'm going to continue to challenge our guys to figure out ways to be more disruptive with that lineup.”
And if they can hash out those issues, or find the proper times and matchups to employ the lineup, the offensive results could be explosive.
It'll cause a matchup nightmare for opponents, with the Thunder's five most dynamic weapons on the floor at the same time. Combined, the group averages 84.5 points per game.
“When we move the ball and we play pass-first basketball, using our athleticism, we can get out and score with the best of them,” Durant said. “We just have to get more reps together.”
So far, in their brief time, the group is averaging 1.04 points per possession, a solid number that you'd only expect to increase as their comfort level does.
“Guys are going to have to have (different) roles when we're on the floor (together),” Durant said. “If I'm just a spacer, a spot-up guy, Serge is just a screener, Reggie is just a guy running the offense and Lamb is a shooter, we just have to figure out what our role is with that unit.”
And as of late, it seems, Brooks is attempting to do just that.
Despite some early struggles, he seems set on getting the lineup some quality run together, allowing for some late-game on-the-job training.
And if it works out, we could be looking at the Thunder's present and future closing five.