Last May 7, the Thunder played the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. It was a huge game.
The Thunder had won Game 1, without Russell Westbrook remember, and could have taken a 2-0 lead on the Grizzlies. Instead, Memphis won 99-93 at Chesapeake Arena, then won three more in a row to eliminate the Thunder. Win that game, and who knows how OKC might have fared the rest of the series?
In that Game 2, Nick Collison fouled Memphis; Darrell Arthur with 3:19 left in the first quarter and the game tied at 13. Scotty Brooks thought that a good time to rest Kendrick Perkins. So in came the Thunder’s backup center.
Hasheem Thabeet. You remember Thabeet? Seven-foot-3. Second pick of the 2009 draft. Orange spot in his hair, some kind of African tribal symbol. Thabeet was the Thunder’s backup center last season. When Perkins needed a breather, and the Thunder needed to stay with a big lineup, in came Thabeet. Thabeet played in 66 games last season. Started four of them. Played 770 minutes.
Wonder whatever happened to Thabeet?
Trick question, as anyone who sits behind the end of the Thunder bench knows. Thabeet remains a Thunder. He’s just been tied to his seat all season as rookie Steven Adams became Perkins’ backup. Thabeet this season has played just 44 minutes all season, in eight games. Only twice all season has Thabeet entered a game other than in garbage time. Back in November, when Perkins was injured and Adams started against both the Clippers and Warriors, Thabeet was in the rotation. He played 14:27 against the Clips, 4:07 against Golden State.
That’s 18 1/2 meaningful minutes all season for a guy who last May was asked to check Marc Gasol for a big chunk of a huge game.
Now Perkins is injured again, a groin strain that will sideline him six weeks, and Adams is back in the starting lineup. Which means one simple thing. Thabeet is going to have to play.
Maybe not against the Cavaliers tonight. Cleveland’s not a big team. But Friday against Memphis? Sunday against Charlotte? March 11 against Houston and March 17 against Chicago and March 21 against Toronto and March 28 against Sacramento and March 30 against Utah and April 3 against San Antonio and, well, you get the picture.
The Thunder can piecemeal a big-enough lineup most of the time in most games. Use a rotation of Collison, Adams and Serge Ibaka to fill the two available post spots. Or go small, with Kevin Durant at a virtual power forward defensively, so long as he’s not matched up with Zac Randolph or Blake Griffin or somebody.
But there will be stretches when Collison and Ibaka and can’t play together, either because of fatigue or foul trouble or simple strategy. Stretches when the Thunder small-ball lineup won’t work.
And that’s when Thabeet has to play. If Brooks isn’t comfortable playing Thabeet in this situation, why the heck is Thabeet even on the roster? This is exactly why you keep him around.
Thabeet is not the player scouts envisioned when he came out of Connecticut five years ago. The Grizzlies have been razzed for picking him No. 2 overall. But truth is, the Thunder liked him, too. OKC settled for James Harden at No. 3, and that worked out rather well.
That was a good NBA draft. Blake Griffin first, Harden third, Tyreke Evans fourth, Ricky Rubio fifth, Steph Curry seventh, DeMar DeRozan ninth, Brandon Jennings 10th, Gerald Henderson 12th, Jrue Holliday 17th, Ty Lawson 18th, Jeff Teague 19th, Darren Collison 21st, Taj Gibson 26th, Patrick Beverley 42nd, Marcus Thornton 43rd, Danny Green 46th.
And Hasheem Thabeet second. Thabeet proved to be virtually worthless on offense. He’s sort of Perkins, only with fewer screens and more offensive tips. And Thabeet’s defense never panned out. He can bother shots because he’s so tall, but as far as post defense or pick’n roll defense, it never really has worked out.
Thabeet was signed by the Thunder in summer 2012 as a potential backup to Perkins and that’s what he proved to be. Decent in small does, but nothing beyond that.
And that’s back to where we are now. The Thunder needing Thabeet in small doses. Five minutes one game, maybe 10 minutes the next. Just try to hold the fort while Adams gets out of foul trouble or Collison rests.
Go spend four minutes letting Gasol know he can’t pass freely from the high post. Go spend three minutes not letting Tiago Splitter get offensive putbacks.
This is why you have a third string. If you don’t play Hasheem Thabeet these six weeks, why have him on the roster at all?