NEW YORK — The moment Perry Jones III has spent a season and a half preparing for arrived Wednesday night, in one of the most pressure-packed scenarios possible.
It came at halftime, on the road, against the two-time defending champions.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks strolled into the locker room and delivered the news.
“The first thing he said was ‘Perry, you're going to start this half,'” Jones said. “And he told me I was guarding LeBron.”
Yeah, that LeBron.
For a second-year player, those words could have sent fear throughout Jones' 6-foot-11 inch frame.
Instead, the opposite happened. Jones felt up to the challenge.
“It made me feel good that he has that trust in me that I can guard LeBron,” Jones said. “He could have picked anybody else, but he came and picked me because he believed that I could. And that's exactly what I did.”
When the Thunder flipped Wednesday's game on its head — turning an 18-point deficit into a 25-point lead and eventual 17-point blowout — it wasn't just the result of Brooks' decision to sit starting center Kendrick Perkins in favor of Jones at the start of the second half. It also was the Thunder's ability to unexpectedly exploit an aging Heat roster with spry legs and superior length.
Jones was the chip that tipped the scale in the Thunder's favor. He played 30 minutes Wednesday and covered LeBron James for the majority of the third quarter. Although James scored 12 points in the period, Jones' presence in the lineup allowed Serge Ibaka to slide from Shane Battier to a more natural matchup with Chris Bosh. It also allowed Kevin Durant to take a break from guarding James and focus more on providing necessary offense while avoiding costly foul trouble.
“I thought Perry came in and played great basketball in that second half,” Brooks said. “But that's what good teams do. You have to pitch in wherever you get minutes, and I thought all the guys did that.”
Jeremy Lamb was just as vital. He came off the bench and scored 18 points in a season-high 35 minutes.
“Them young guys are gamers, man,” Durant said. “Jeremy Lamb is a gamer; Perry Jones. They want it. They want that opportunity.”
Lately, they've been getting it.
The Miami experiment provided only more pivotal experience for Jones and Lamb, both of whom are showing terrific signs of in-season growth. Their impact Wednesday came three games after both played at least 30 minutes in an 18-point win at Boston on Jan. 24. Jones started in place of an injured Durant that game, and the two combined for 29 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five steals and only two turnovers.
“We've got a lot of guys who can play,” said Nick Collison. “We've been saying that all year.”
It's become more evident than ever now that the Thunder is rolling despite missing Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City is riding a nine-game winning streak entering Friday's game at Brooklyn. It's a credit to Durant's sizzling scoring streak, of course. But it's also been a product of the increasing contributions of unheralded young guns like Jones and Lamb.
Gamers just gunning for more and more opportunities.
“We use every game as a confidence-builder,” said Lamb. “We're trying to get as much experience as we can. We're trying to take every game and learn from it. We're trying to get better every game.”