Welcome to "Plus/Minus," a weekly series that focuses on trends among players, topics, and ideas related to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The scores are similar to those found in the box score of an NBA game, with a higher number representing a better performance. For example, "+3" represents a better performance than "+2," and "-3" is worse than "-2." A score of "0" is considered neutral.
This probably should have been the All-Kevin Durant Edition of Plus/Minus. KD came back on time and lived up to every possible expectation, immediately putting up lines of 27/6/1 (with four steals) and 30/6/5 (with two blocks). Durant’s deadly efficiency was on full display, and the Thunder grabbed two easy wins to show for it.
Tonight, though, is a game the Thunder players have long had circled on their own calendars. For the first time in his career, Reggie Jackson visits Oklahoma City with his own team.
Jackson’s play for the 8-7 Pistons has actually been right in line with what he did for the Thunder, albeit on a slightly larger scale. As expected, Jackson’s points and field goal attempts are way up from his time with the Thunder. His accuracy from the field is nearly identical. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he is turning the ball over more than ever, but that can be attributed to a usage rate of 30.5% - up from the 22.1% he put up last season while a member of the Thunder.
Reggie’s performance tonight will inevitably be compared to James Harden’s return to Oklahoma City. Harden’s was certainly far from pleasant: he scored 17 points on 3 of 16 shooting with three turnovers in a 22-point loss.
While Jackson is not nearly the player Harden is, there will be a similar electricity in Chesapeake Arena for his return. Westbrook and Durant both had their say after Jackson was traded, and Friday night will be the Thunder fans’ chance to let Reggie hear it. They aren't likely to shy away.
I took this video when the Thunder visited the Wizards back in 2014. Today seems as good as any to finally post it.
+3 An accurate timetable for return from injury
Kevin Durant’s return is important because of what he gives the Thunder on the court. His mere presence transforms OKC from a playoff contender to an actual NBA Championship hopeful.
But coming off a wasted season for the Thunder filled with vague and ultimately meaningless timetables for Kevin Durant’s return, the mere fact that the team got this one right superseded any of KD’s actual basketball-related impact this week. He got hurt, the team diagnosed the injury and set a timetable for return, and Durant came back within that timetable. Not earlier, not later, and not until he was clearly ready to play, as was plainly demonstrated by his offensive display against the Jazz.
For some teams, this is commonplace. These are the kind of teams that Lebron James now calls out publicly But for OKC, this just hasn’t seemed to be the case when it comes to Durant or Westbrook. Because of the player involved, and because of what’s at stake this year, a properly-navigated return for Kevin Durant was a no brainer at +3 this week.
+2 The Extra Pass
Any other week, this just might be +3. Per Basketball-Reference.com, the 2015-16 Thunder come into Friday night averaging 22.1 team assists per game – good for 7th in the league, and up from 20.5 a year ago. "The Extra Pass" has always been a strange concept for this team. Not only should the adage "pass up a good shot for a great shot" form the basis for a drinking game each time you sit down to watch an ESPN or TNT double header, it also hasn’t always made the most sense for OKC. Is a slightly-more open Serge Ibaka really a better option than a covered Kevin Durant from 28 feet?
Either way, the team has averaged a robust 24 assists in the 2 games Durant played in this week, right on the heels of a 25-assist performance against Dallas.
The Brooklyn game was especially impressive. Not only did the team chalk up 26 assists, but KD and Westbrook still got theirs to the tune of 30 and 27 points, respectively. It was the perfect offensive attack, and came on a night where Billy Donovan finally unleashed the Thunder’s version of small ball to counter Golden State: Westbrook, Waiters, Morrow, Durant, and Ibaka.
+1 What the…
0 The Devolution Lineup
With all the talk of Golden State "revolutionizing" basketball by sending out five guys who can basically do everything well, the real losers are those of us waiting with baited breath for Billy Donovan to put together the biggest lineup in the league: Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka, Kanter, and Adams. Sure, this lineup would present some serious shortcomings. On offense, the lane could be clogged to the point where even Westbrook might not be able to get to the basket, and a high school coach could probably draw up plays to score on a team with Serge Ibaka defending the 3.
But on those nights when the opposing center is eating OKC alive on the boards and the offense is basically Durant pulling up from 27 feet, why not throw this combo out for 5 or 6 minutes?
-1 The cursed navy blue uniforms
I, like many others, was under the impression that the new orange alternates would spell the end of the navy blue jerseys that have so often seemed to correlate with the team’s worst performances.
Of all the things the franchise has done right, they are playing with fire here.
-2 The "Die by the 3" narrative
In last Friday’s three-point loss to the Knicks, OKC shot a staggering 3 for 29 from long distance. Even if you discard Westbrook’s 2 for 10 showing, the term "ice cold" doesn’t even begin to tell the story.
The Knicks loss has become somewhat of a talking point for those who believe the Thunder rely too heavily on the three point shot, when that really isn’t the case. In fact, the team shoots just about the same number of threes in wins as it does in losses (22.9 versus 22.8, respectively).
The Thunder aren’t a team that shoots a ton of threes on average – they rank 19th in the league with 22.9 attempts per game. In addition, shooting a lot of threes isn’t exactly a bad thing. The Rockets, Warriors, and Cavs rank 1st, 2nd, and 4th, respectively, in three point attempts per game.
OKC has shot 51 threes since Durant returned, making 21 of them. Detroit comes into Friday as the 8th worst team in the league at defending against made three point shots, though teams only attempt 20.8 threes per game against the Pistons (good for sixth in the league). Look for the Thunder to buck at least one of those trends, and hopefully both.
-3 Post-injury anxiety
Anyone remember Christmas Day of 2013? In case you need a refresher, Russell Westbrook scorched the Garden for a triple double in a win over the Knicks. Here are the highlights:
That game was awesome. But two days later, something happened that wasn’t very awesome: the team announced Westbrook would have his knee scoped and would be out until after the All-Star break. Two days after putting up a triple double in a marquee matchup, and after playing for weeks with reportedly zero knee pain, Westbrook was suddenly out for multiple months.
Look, the injury that Kevin Durant is returning from is not on the level of the knee injury Westbrook had, much less anything close to as severe as the foot problems that cost Durant most of last season. But it is still a return from an injury that caused him to miss multiple games, and hamstrings can be tricky. Following several years of season-ending misfortune involving injuries to star players, OKC fans can be forgiven for continuing to hold their breath every time KD goes hard to the basket or hits the floor.
This week’s +3 was +3 for a reason: the Thunder haven’t been lucky with injuries in a long time. The medical staff needs a convincing victory here, and they will get it if Kevin Durant can play uninterrupted, Kevin Durant-caliber basketball for the next few weeks. It would be the start of just what could be the most important winning streak in franchise history.