The Thunder started tall and ended short. Such is life when you’re patching together lineups.
The Thunder beat the Bobcats 116-99 Sunday night with the tallest starting lineup in the NBA this season and a close-out crew that featured three point guards. The redwoods got the Thunder off to a decent start and the mighty mites spurted away at the end.
Nice way to start the play-without-Thabo portion of the season. Thabo Sefolosha (strained calf) has joined Kendrick Perkins on the injured list; neither is expected to return until April. Add in Russell Westbrook’s recently-ended two-month absence, and it’s been quite a jigsaw puzzle for Scotty Brooks.
Gone are the indestructible days when you knew exactly who would grace the Thunder lineup. Now, with Foreman Scotty’s defensive anchors missing, there’s no telling who he’ll start.
Like this quintet: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Perry Jones. Westbrook and four guys who stand in the neighborhood of 6-foot-10 to 7-foot. Durant, who is about 6-foot-11 but asks the Thunder to list him at 6-9, started out guarding the Bobcats’ 6-5 Gerald Henderson.
“We got a long group of guys that can show a nice presentation and disrupt a lot of offenses,” Durant said. “We’ve gotta be conscious of that and use it to our advantage.”
That lineup played reasonably well. It opened the game by outscoring Charlotte 13-10 in almost five minutes, before Adams got his second foul. Seven-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet replaced Adams, making the Thunder even taller, and over the next 1:10, OKC outscored the Bobcats 4-3 before Brooks went to a more conventional lineup.
In the second half, the starters played 6:39 and were even with the Bobcats, 12-12, before Thabeet again replaced Adams and the Thunder outscored Charlotte 4-3 over the next 45 seconds.
So expect to see the 6-11 Jones again in the lineup.
“Hopefully we can use our length,” Brooks said. “That’s one of the things we take pride in. We have guys that can alter shots and change shots. We can do a lot of switching with certain lineups out there.”
This was the Thunder’s best defensive game since the All-Star break, although that’s not saying much. The Bobcats aren’t the ’62 Celtics. But the big lineup certainly offers some intriguing potential. With Durant, Ibaka, Jones and Adams on the court, arms seem to go in every direction, in the way of passing lanes and the backboard. So if Durant and Jones can stay in front of smaller, quicker players — and they mostly did — this group could at least cause some problems.
“We all get out and run the floor,” Jones said. “We can all defend. I don’t really think there’s a minus at all. We’re all quick on our feet.”
Don’t misunderstand. The Thunder will miss Thabo. You don’t lose your best perimeter defender and not pay the price. But Brooks has often gone down the stretch without Sefolosha. So it wasn’t out of the ordinary when the Thunder, leading 96-89 with 7:27 left, went with a lineup of Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher.
Over the next 41/2 minutes, the Thunder outscored Charlotte 16-3 to blow open the game. Fisher had two of his four steals, and the Thunder finally slowed Al Jefferson, who took advantage of Perkins’ absence and scored 25 points. After Jefferson’s hook shot brought the Bobcats within 98-92 with 5:47 left, he didn’t get another shot, as Ibaka played tough and the defense stiffened on passes from the perimeter.
“That’s the versatility we have,” Brooks said. “We can play small, big, super small … Kevin gives us the flexibility there, because he can guard multiple positions. Our defense was good in that fourth quarter.”
And the start was fine. With a patchwork lineup, that will have to do.