A one-on-one session after Thunder practice quickly turned competitive on Wednesday, perimeter players barking at each other, taking turns trying to score. Anthony Morrow swiped his hand in front of Kevin Durant’s face and inadvertently caught him in the eye.
Then, Andre Roberson cut sharply and forced a few errant shots, showing he’s ready to play after missing nearly a month of games with a knee sprain. That 10-game stretch saw Dion Waiters deliver mixed results in his run as a starter alongside Russell Westbrook.
What has the Thunder learned about its shooting guard situation with Waiters as the starter?
“I know there’s been a lot made of his shooting and the ball not going in the basket,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Tuesday. “I’ve always said this: Dion’s got a lot of other things he can do.”
In the last 10 games, Waiters shot 35.3 percent from 3-point range, 37.2 percent overall, and posted the lowest plus/minus (2.2) of any of the Thunder starters. His last two games out of the All-Star break were particularly rough: Four points on 1-of-14 shooting.
“If he was shooting lights out and he was not playing a high level of defense and was giving up a lot of points, I’m not so sure people would be looking at that and saying ‘Geez, he’s not playing great,’” Donovan said. “I think the point needs to be made about Dion is he’s not shot the ball well. I don’t think it’s fair to say he has not played well. He’s not shot the ball well.”
Expect Roberson to return as the starter, but Waiters is still the Thunder’s best combination of offense and defense at shooting guard. As much as Donovan has stood by Waiters’ defensive contributions, Waiters had the worst defensive rating of any Thunder player in Roberson’s injury absence.
“I’m gonna still do my job either way, whether I’m starting or coming off the bench,” Roberson said.
Has the Thunder missed Roberson? Morrow’s play during Roberson’s absence hasn’t been much better than Waiters’ offensively (35.3 FG, 35.7 3-point FG). Randy Foye’s only played one game since joining the Thunder at the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
Donovan could have played Roberson at shooting guard on Sunday, but wanted to get him more contact in practice. Foye and Morrow played 14 minutes each off the bench. That night, Donovan said he wasn’t in a position yet to make a decision on who the starter would be when Roberson plays again.
Kevin Durant said the Thunder has played well “for the most part” without Roberson. The Thunder went 7-3 in those games, but the three losses came to the only three teams in that stretch with records above .500. The Thunder has given up an average of 107.8 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games.
“He brings a lot to our team on the defensive end. He’s a great offensive rebounder and cutter. So we miss him,” Durant said. “I’m not gonna say we don’t. He’s a huge part to our team, so I’m glad to have him back.”
Maybe a return to Dallas will jolt the Thunder’s shooting guards. Waiters had 13 points and zero turnovers the last time the Thunder played the Mavs. It was the game before Roberson’s injury.
During his latest trial as a starter, Waiters said home or away, nothing’s changed.
“I’m the same, man. I’ve never been a guy that’s lacked confidence … at all,” Waiters said. “I’m gonna continue to be me, I’m gonna make shots, I’m gonna miss shots.
“Twenty-seven games left, you can’t always play (well), so you’ve gotta stay with it, continue to believe, put your work in, (stay with the) same routine you do and trust that it’s gonna turn.”