Halfway through the second quarter, Russell Westbrook threw a lob for Alex Abrines resulting in a two-handed slam and from that moment on, it was evident that the Thunder bench would have one of those uncharacteristically great nights.
“It feels good,” said Abrines. “After the All-Star break, a little bit of rest was good for my legs, my body.”
Raymond Felton led the bench unit with 13 points on a perfect 3-for-3 shooting from long distance, followed by Abrines who scored 12 points. The bench tallied a total 48 points combined with Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant combining for 21 points to help push the Thunder past a tank-caliber Orlando Magic squad, 112-105.
In a close game through 36 minutes, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook didn’t do much scoring. Two of the big three shot 7-of-27 collectively, for 17 points. So clearly, it was up to Paul George – who scored 26 points – and a highly criticized Thunder bench to pull this game out, at home, against a team that has the second-to-last record in the NBA.
In this win, for the first time all season, Billy Donovan’s repertoire of shooting guards actually panned out as a unit late in the game. At a pivotal moment with 5:30 left in the third quarter, Donovan opted to play his rookie, Terrance Ferguson who has had his fair share of learning experiences through 62 games. Surely, the Thunder faithful wondered why Abrines wasn’t in the game given the fact that he wasn’t a liability defensively after making a few big plays for a change.
But Ferguson silenced his critics temporarily, after holding his own on the defensive end. Him being in during that third quarter proved to be beneficial. Not only did he force a turnover on a strip, he played lockdown defense against the Magic and was a significant reason why the Magic didn’t score for a two-minute scoring hiatus towards the end of the third.
This was the best game from the shooting guard position since the Thunder lost Andre Roberson to injury.
It turned out that Donovan knew what he was doing by playing Ferguson to end the third quarter. Why? Because he wanted to save Abrines’ legs to play with the starters in the final 10 minutes of the game. He also played Abrines the entire second quarter instead of bringing him in with the second team to end the first quarter like he normally does.
Abrines feels like he’s getting better defensively. He praised Roberson’s defense and mentioned that he’s trying to step up in place of him.
Well, shoot. It worked for him, it worked for Ferguson and it even worked for the game’s starter, Josh Huestis as they were eight points better than Magic when in the game.
On paper, this win looks very underwhelming, after defeating an (18-42) Magic team. But presumably from this point on through the remaining 20 games of this season, every game will be big for OKC who sits tied with Portland and New Orleans for fifth in the Western Conference, 1.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for fourth and two games behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for third.
Over the next three games, the only playoff team they play is Portland. The other two have a combined record of (37-86). Obviously two games they shouldn’t have a hard time with but with their (14-17) record and many of those losses coming to non-playoff teams, who knows what the outcome may be.