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Thunder bench playing well, but the starters aren't

The Thunder’s frustrating play in Portland for the first two games of the Western Conference playoff series has masked a stunning performance by the Oklahoma City bench.

The Thunder backups are playing well.

Beyond Dennis Schroder and perhaps Nerlens Noel, the bench has deteriorated into effectiveness this season. But in two games against the Blazers, the bench has held up well.

The plus/minus numbers are striking.

In a series in which Russell Westbrook is minus-37 in 75 minutes, Raymond Felton is plus-11 in 26 minutes.

In a series in which Jerami Grant is minus-39 in 65 minutes, Markieff Morris is plus-eight in 27 minutes.

In a series in which Steven Adams is minus-35 in 67 minutes, Noel is plus-10 in 27 minutes.

The Thunder, down 2-0 to the Blazers, is wasting quality play by its bench.

By far the Thunder’s best lineup in this series has been Paul George playing with four reserves. Dennis Schroder is a collective minus-five in this series, but those numbers are driven down by his play with the starters. When Schroder is on the court with three fellow backups and George, the Thunder is thriving, plus-17 in 15 minutes.

The Thunder’s worst two lineups in this series are the Thunder’s favorite two lineups.

The Thunder starting five has played 27 minutes together and is a collective minus-seven, which isn’t good but isn’t awful.

But the quintet of Schroder replacing Terrance Ferguson to play with George, Westbrook, Adams and Grant has played 25 minutes together and been totally torched – a minus-19.

Admittedly, part of this equation is that Portland is not a deep team, either, especially with center Jusuf Nurkic out. The Blazer backups are Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Evan Turner, Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard and Jake Layman.

Some interesting talent there, but not particularly effective. Turner plays point guard when the Blazers sit both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

But for the Thunder to get good play out of its bench and still be down 2-0 is discouraging. Starting lineup success long has been a Thunder staple. Going back to Kendrick Perkins and Andre Roberson days, the Thunder starters played well together even with individuals who seemed out of place on such talent-rich units.

This Thunder starting lineup played the most minutes together of any other five-man unit in the NBA, 919 minutes. It was not as successful as the typical Thunder starting five.

Of the 40 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together, the Thunder starters ranked 12th in net rating, plus-9.1. That means OKC, with its starters on the court, outscored opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions.

The starters, only with Schroder replacing Ferguson, played 434 minutes and had a net rating of 8.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 14th among NBA lineups that played at least 200 minutes.

So good. Just not great.

Portland’s regular-season lineups using its starters or one sub were really good. Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Turner played 260 minutes together and ranked second in net rating, 16.4. The same, only Layman replacing Turner, played 369 minutes and ranked eighth, 9.8. The actual starters of McCollum, Lillard, Nurkic, Aminu and Mo Harkless played 744 minutes and ranked 13th, at 8.9.

Now Portland is without Nurkic, and still its main lineups are getting the best of the Thunder, by far. Only the bench is holding up for OKC.

That must change if the Thunder is to make this a series.

Related Photos
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, shoots in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nerlens Noel during the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, shoots in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nerlens Noel during the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-46624ddb32c904da8935b3b15c8c8937.jpg" alt="Photo - Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, shoots in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nerlens Noel during the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)" title="Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, shoots in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nerlens Noel during the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)"><figcaption>Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, shoots in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nerlens Noel during the second half of Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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