CBS Sports' Colin Ward-Henninger outlines why the Thunder needs to secure another defensive-minded shooting guard before Thursday's trade deadline.
It's the middle of one of the Thunder's best games of the season. They're comfortably up by 22 points late in the third quarter on the road against the defending champs, but you'd never know it by watching the sequence that's about to unfold. After an offensive foul by Warriors forward Kevon Looney, Thunder uber-alpha Russell Westbrook calls the team together for an impromptu huddle.
The scene plays out like a Thanksgiving football game at grandpa's house, with Westbrook tracing out his desired play on the palm of his hand while his teammates nod in agreement. As he dribbles up court, Westbrook looks like Peyton Manning making one of his famous last-second adjustments, gesticulating and pointing and shouting.
The result is exactly what Westbrook wanted. Josh Huestis makes a cut off the ball, meanwhile on the weakside Jerami Grant sets a screen for Alex Abrines, who finds himself wide open for a wing 3-pointer. It works to absolute perfection. Until ...
The shot rims out, setting up a perfect microcosm for the current state of this OKC squad. The play revealed so much -- the Thunder's focus despite holding a big lead, Westbrook's undeniable leadership and grip over his teammates and, of course, the gaping hole at shooting guard that's been left by the season-ending injury to Andre Roberson.
The Thunder's 125-105 win over the Warriors on Tuesday was their sixth game since Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon, and it was the first audition for Josh Huestis as the team's starting shooting guard. Terrance Ferguson had drawn the previous five starts, four of which resulted in OKC losses, and coach Billy Donovan hinted prior to the game that a change was coming.
Abrines can shoot. Huestis can defend. Ferguson might eventually be able to do both, but he's 19 years old. It leaves the Thunder in an extremely tricky position heading into Thursday's trade deadline.
"I really thought we were playing really, really good basketball before Andre got hurt," Donovan said before the game. "Obviously that's kind of changed some things. We're still working out, trying to fill that gap a little bit on really both ends of the floor."
Donovan's used three different shooting guards, and even some lineups with Paul George at that spot, to try to see if he can find lightning in a bottle. But even after the team's wire-to-wire convincing win over the world champs, Donovan didn't give any indication that Huestis had won the job.
He lauded Huestis' effort, saying that his size and length was necessary against the Warriors, but Donovan quickly pointed out the biggest problem with playing him for extended minutes against this Golden State team.
"With an explosive offensive team like them, you have to keep scoring," Donovan said after the game. "Someone asked me before the game what I thought was important -- I think, well, scoring. You've got to score and you've got to defend, but I thought we were gonna have to score points."
Scoring wasn't a problem for the Thunder on this night, largely thanks to superlative individual performances from Westbrook (34 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) and George (38 points, 6-for-11 3-pointers). But this Thunder team isn't playing for a big February win. They know the only time that counts is the playoffs, that the road to the NBA Finals goes through Golden State and that they're not going to get 30-plus from Westbrook and George in every game of a postseason series.
It's great to have options to mix and match, but if OKC is going to compete with the Warriors, it is going to need a consistent shooting guard who can play on both sides of the ball. Even Roberson, an all-world defender with a questionable jumper, found a way to be effective in the Thunder's star-laden offense. Warriors coach Steve Kerr discussed before the game how important the simple rhythm developed by playing alongside the same unit every night can be.
"There's also just the idea of patterns of the rotations, and you get comfortable," Kerr said. "You could tell [the Thunder] were in a great groove and they were feeling very confident. All it takes sometimes is one injury and it tweaks the rotation, and now all of a sudden you're starting a different guy, which changes the bench rotation. You see it all the time in the NBA. It's a delicate balance."
So as fun as it is for Donovan to mix up the hodgepodge of Abrines, Huestis, Ferguson, Grant and Patrick Patterson, what the Thunder really need is a starting shooting guard. Luckily for them, Roberson's injury happened before the trade deadline.
Two-way shooting guards aren't a dime a dozen in the NBA, but they're out there for the right price. The first one that comes to mind is Avery Bradley, recently sent to the Clippers from Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade. Bradley has been a flip candidate ever since the Clippers got him, and with news that Los Angeles is discussing an extension with Lou Williams, it appears that Bradley, who's on an expiring contract, could be available.
If a Bradley deal doesn't work out, a guy like Kent Bazemore would also fit the bill, though he's a bit more expensive. Even a vet like Wesley Matthews would do the trick. The point is, OKC needs a reliable final piece to its starting lineup.
General manager Sam Presti has already proven himself to be a magician, winning the Paul George sweepstakes this summer and bringing in Carmelo Anthony to boot, so if there's a deal to be made, he'll figure out a way to make it. And it's the very presence of George and Anthony, neither of which may be back with the team next season, that makes this the right time to go all-in.
The Thunder proved on Tuesday night, and back in November, that they can beat the Warriors. Whether they can do it four times in seven games remains to be seen, but if they're going to have any shot then they're going to need a shooting guard. You can win regular-season games by starting Huestis, but his is a veteran team, and they know what they're playing for.
"You're going against the champs. In order to beat the best, you've got to bring your best," Anthony said. "I think that's kind of our mindset. We know when we play against the best teams in the league, it's a pride thing, it's an ego thing. We're chasing the same thing everybody else is chasing, which is that ring."
The time is right for the Thunder to make their move toward getting that hardware, and it starts at the trade deadline.
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