Despite a television timeout delaying his comeback, it finally happened with 2:05 left in the first quarter. Payne checked in his first NBA action since the Western Conference Finals last season.
“I got up there, it was a timeout coming,” Payne said. “So, I was like, aw man. I go walk back. I’ve got a timeout. More time to sit down.”
It started with a turnover, too.
Enes Kanter tried to find a wide open Payne underneath the goal, but Payne fumbled it out of bounds. Call it jitters or nerves if you will, but those went away quickly.
“They went away after I hit my first shot,” Payne said. “I was cool all the way up to the four-minute mark. Then, it was like, I’m about to go in the game. But once I got out there, everything went away.”
All eight of his points came in a flurry to start the second quarter. A big three with 11:16 in the second put Oklahoma City up 27-24. He answered back a minute later with a second three-pointer. He capped it off with a nice pull up jumper putting Oklahoma City up 40-38 with 7:35 remaining in the quarter.
“He’s jumped through, I think, a lot of hoops to get himself to this point,” Donovan said. “There’s really nothing holding him back right now, other than the fact that obviously he’s missed a lot of time.”
Payne was recovering from a fracture in his foot. He originally had surgery on the foot in July and was going to be ready by the start of the season, but a second injury delayed him until last night.
“I got comfortable real quick and found my rhythm,” Payne said. “It’s because of the fans. They made me feel comfortable. My teammates cheered me on and gave me a lot of confidence before the game and during the game.”
Payne dished to Joffrey Lauvergne for his first assist of the season. He ran the second team with fluidity and confidence. The same bravado we see with Russell Westbrook in the pregame dance, we saw through Payne leading the charge against the Nuggets.
Payne finished 3-of-4 from the floor, pulling down two rebounds and dishing out an assist.
“That was his first game coming back and I am really happy,” Kanter said. “I am proud of him, man.”
Payne spent tow games with the Oklahoma City Blue, getting back up to game speed and the time in the D-League showed.
“It was big time,” Payne said. “It allowed me to get my rhythm and shot back.”
With Payne back in the main rotation, someone is bound to fall out and for Semaj Christon, he’s the odd man out. Him and Anthony Morrow both did not play tonight, so minutes for those two may come only in key situations.
“It was good for our team and our second unit and get him back flowing,” Westbrook said. “Semaj is doing a great job as well. It’s definitely good to have Cam back and get his rhythm back.”
Oklahoma City will need Payne to stay in rhythm and lead this second unit as the Thunder head towards the second half of the season. The bench can make or break a team in the playoffs.
“Our second unit has kind of created a little bit of a rhythm, and I explained to him that he needs to fit into that rhythm,” Donovan said. “It’s not about those other four guys adjusting to him. He has to adjust to the other four guys.”
If Payne meshes well with the second unit, one of the top 12 in the league in scoring, this team could be special come April and May.