Author - Marcus Glover

Bench squad powers OKC past San Antonio 104-94

In what was essentially a coast-to-coast lead, the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs 104-94 in a crucial showdown in the Western Conference playoff race on Saturday night.

With the victory, the Thunder jumped to fifth in the Western Conference standings and are now 39-29 on the season with only 14 games left this season.

If I had told you Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony would combine for 34 points on 11-of-39 shooting, you would likely assume the Thunder lost against the Spurs. Surprisingly, the Thunder bench, the one that is ranked last in the NBA averaging 25.6 points per game, scored 50 points, 50 POINTS, shooting 19-of-32 on field goals.

In the first quarter, it seemed like both teams forgot how to play basketball or were still recovering from Friday night. Besides Westbrook who went 7-of-15 and shockingly got another triple-double, 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists, Anthony (1-of-8 for two points) and George (4-of-16 for 11 points) had rough nights.

However, Corey Brewer, in his second start, his impact in the starting lineup was evident whether it was on offense or defense; Brewer’s better at moving and cutting off the ball than Josh Huestis, Alex Abrines, or Terrence Ferguson.

“He’s a guy when he’s involved, when he’s encouraged,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “He plays really, really well.”

In the second quarter and the rest of the game, things picked up for the Thunder and it was mostly because of the Thunder’s bench. Jerami Grant 15 points and eight rebounds, Patrick Patterson 10 points, and Abrines 11 points were instrumental in the Thunder maintaining their lead in the second quarter going into halftime at 52-43.

The Thunder managed to avoid their season theme of losing a lead in the third quarter, but they did lose Steven Adams eight points and only one rebound to a sprained ankle for the rest of the game. Adams did not return from the locker room and his status is unclear.

In the fourth quarter, the Thunder broke the game open, which led to a 21-point lead, but the Thunder cannot win easy, so things briefly got interesting for a couple of minutes late in the fourth, before Westbrook ended any fears of a potential choke job.

Nick Collison came in for some crucial minutes. The savvy veteran scored seven points in six game minutes, going 3-of-4 from the floor and grabbing two rebounds. He received MVP chants as he shot free throws in the fourth quarter. Mr. Thunder’s legend grew on tonight.

“A total pro. He comes ready to play every day,” Donovan said. “Nick keeping himself prepared and going in there he did a great job.”

The Thunder has its next two games against sub .500 as they host the Sacramento Kings on Monday night and the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night. It’s the rare home-and-home back-to-back. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Brady Trantham and Erik Gee will be in arena for all your game day coverage.

Keys to the Game

Thunder Defense: A-

Overall, the Thunder played great on defense. While they lost the turnover battle 14:15, the defense whether George and Westbrook or Grant and Patterson, the Thunder’s length and speed annoyed the Spurs and resulted in many deflections. Additionally, it was evident the Thunder’s game plan was double LaMarcus Aldridge whenever he touched the ball and try to deflect the ball whenever he passed it. Aldridge struggled all night and finished with 11 points on 5-of-16 shooting.

Rebounding: A+

Oklahoma City a fantastic job on the boards tonight. Time after time, they limited the Spurs to only one-and-done opportunities. Oklahoma City’s rebounding really has come into their own as late. Also, Oklahoma City is now a killer 28-10 when they win the rebounding battle. Considering they lost Adams for a good chunk of the second half to an ankle sprain, it’s even more impressive they won it tonight.

Turnovers: B

Only 15 turnovers for the Thunder and really, it’s “only” 15 turnovers. Oklahoma City had been averaging north of 16 turnovers since the all-star break, so to bring it under that was a job well done. Westbrook and George had nine of the 15, which leads you show the rest of the team did a great job taking care of the ball tonight.

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Raymond Felton shining in back up role

Besides the Thunder’s lifelong search for a serviceable 3-and-D wing player, the backup point guard position for the team has also been a wasteland. That’s where Raymond Felton comes in.

Since Eric Maynor, bet you weren’t expecting to hear him, the Thunder has seen the likes of Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith, Sebastian Telfair, Cameron Payne, and *shudders* Derek Fisher running Westbrook’s backup.

While Payne excelled at running the pregame dance routine with Westbrook, Jackson saved the Thunder’s season against the Grizzlies and Fisher did Fisher things, none of these players did what a backup point guard is supposed to do: make the game easier for his team.

Now enter “Treymond” Felton, the backup point guard of your dreams. While Felton’s body does not scream NBA point guard, Felton has done everything the Thunder have desired from its backup point guard. Felton can actually run the offense, whether he is with the starters or with the bench.

As most experts observed during Westbrook’s One-Man Band Triple Double Tour and especially during the first round matchup with the Rockets, once Westbrook hit the bench, the Thunder went from outscoring opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions to being outscored by 51.3 points per 100 possessions. It does not take a math genius to know figure it out.

“That’s what he does,” Russell Westbrook said. “It’s what he’s been doing all season long, just being solid.”

The main reason for this drastic drop off was the Thunder’s bench could not run an offense to get any quality looks at the basket and it certainly did not help having Semaj Christon piloting that unit. Although Felton’s stats: 7.0 points; 2.7 assists; and 2.1 rebounds per game are not eye popping, they do not reflect Felton’s real value to the team.

“His greatest strength is how cerebral he is, how smart he is,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “That to me is the biggest thing, that he’s a very smart, experienced player who’s got a calmness and a disposition when he’s out there.”

With Felton—an experienced 12-year NBA veteran—Donovan has felt comfortable allowing Felton to run pick and roll with Jerami Grant or Patrick Patterson. Whether it leads to a Grant drive or dunk, or a Patterson three-pointer, Felton makes the game easier for his teammates.

Sometimes the best way to judge a player is to use the eye-test. Despite only shooting 34 percent from three and 40 percent from the field this season, and averaging 32.7 percent from three over his career, you’ll notice Felton’s uncanny ability to hit key threes in succession to hold of an opponent’s run or take the lead. Felton’s impact is being felt by the opposing teams, because Felton has demonstrated an ability to hit an open three, so the opposing teams have to respect that threat.

Felton’s underrated ability to control the pace can go unnoticed.

“Really good feel how to play,” Donovan said. “Great tempo. Reads defense. Understands matchups.”

Even when Felton is playing alongside Westbrook and the starters, Felton helps make the game easier for the team than Payne or Christon could. If Donovan chooses to keep Felton in with Westbrook, then both players can take turns bringing the ball up court and initiating the offense, which allows the other to conserve energy. If Donovan plays Felton with either Carmelo Anthony or Paul George, Felton can either initiate a pick and roll, or play off the ball Anthony and George can draw attention looking for their shot, which leads to either an open three for Felton or another Thunder player.

“A lot of guys I play with demand a lot of double-teams and a lot of attention, so it’s giving me chances to have a lot of open shots,” Felton said. “And I just got to take advantage of it.”

While this season the bench is scoring 25.1 points compared to last season’s 36.1 points, there are reasons to explain the drop: this season’s starting unit is vastly stronger. You can account that to Donovan staggering his lineups to usually have one starter with the bench, and the Thunder shortening its bench in the two 2-for-1 player trades it made for Anthony and George.

Say what you want about the Felton’s numbers and his body, the guy has been the backup point guard the Thunder have needed for years.

“Whatever it is this team needs me to do, whatever coach needs me to do to help this team out, to help us get a win that night,” Felton said, “I’m gonna do.”

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