OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder coach Billy Donovan spent much of last year’s final two months discussing a tedious topic: integrating new players into a roster.
He did it over and over after Oklahoma City had dealt for power forward Taj Gibson and sharpshooter Doug McDermott just before the 2017 trade deadline. Gibson had played for years in Chicago. He had to learn the Thunder’s terminologies, his new teammates’ habits, how to act, how to lead, everything. It was all new.
Donovan waited seven games before he put Gibson in the starting lineup. He still spoke about assimilating him into the team after that.
He has barely spoken about that issue, one he and others around the locker room harped on after trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, too, with Corey Brewer, who signed with OKC not two weeks ago.
Brewer entered the starting lineup just two games into his tenure. The Thunder have gone 5-0 with him there. He looks like he’s been there all along, never more so than during Friday’s 121-113 win over the L.A. Clippers, when the 11-year veteran went for a team-leading 22 points on 7 of 12 shooting.
“There was no learning with Corey,” Donovan, who coached Brewer at the University of Florida, said. “I know who Corey is as a person, as a player. I think he knows who I am as a coach...He's done a great job integrating himself into the team and figuring out where he can make an impact.”
Brewer has thrived from extra passes — and they don’t even have to be ones from his teammates.
He received one from George in the waning moments of Friday’s win, nailing his second corner 3 of the game off a dish from the five-time All-Star to put Oklahoma City up 10 with under two minutes to go. If that wasn’t the dagger, his interception of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan was. Jordan passed up an open dunk to fire a pass to the corner with the Clippers down six and only half-a-minute remaining.
Brewer decided to go all Deion Sanders, earning his sixth steal of the night in the process.
“It’s a comfort level. I keep telling everybody, like, ‘Coach Donovan makes me feel real comfortable.’ I won two national championships with the guy,” Brewer said. “So, his systems, his demeanor and the faith he has in me, it makes the game easier.”
Brewer guarded Clippers binge scorer Lou Williams and feisty guard Austin Rivers. He benefited off cuts and constant fast breaking on a night the Thunder ripped away a season-high 17 steals.
“Obviously, we want to play fast and get extra shots up. So, [that’s] definitely big for us,” Russell Westbrook, who finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, said.
“I love to run. That’s my game. I can run all day,” he said.
Westbrook facilitated ball movement from those breaks, especially late in the game, when the Thunder zipped the ball around the floor.
That’s when George, who finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, found Brewer for that corner 3. It’s when Westbrook found George for shots. It’s when Steven Adams further contributed around the rim on a night he went for 18 points and 14 rebounds, 10 of them offensive.
“Those guys did a great job of making the extra pass…We generated good shots,” Donovan said.
It’s an area that’s hurt the Thunder all year late in games: ball movement paired with quick decision-making and player movement. It’s one Brewer has adapted to like he’s been on the team for six years.
It's one that's shown no signs of going away, even though no one expected a change of scenery would mean this.
“We know what he can do from playing against him. So, it was an easy adjustment for him,” Carmelo Anthony, who scored nine points Friday, said. “Come in, do what he do best, us help him out make the transition as smooth as possible. And as a result, he’s fitting in like he’s been with us throughout the whole season.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.