NEW ORLEANS — Thunder coach Billy Donovan approached Paul George with a new idea Sunday morning.
George has routinely played the entire first and third quarters of games this season. It’s a preference of his, and he’s consistently talked both privately and publicly about how staying in for the first 12 minutes of halves helps him catch a rhythm. Lately, his rotations have bled into the beginning minutes of second and fourth quarters, as well. That's 14 or 15 minutes to start an NBA game without taking a breather.
Donovan, however, wanted to change it for Sunday’s eventual 109-104 win in New Orleans.
“Those two minutes, two-and-a-half minutes in the second [quarter], that’s a long stretch for him,” Donovan said. “And I just told him that I felt like I wanted to take a look to see if it would help him at all when [Russell Westbrook] comes off the floor and Carmelo [Anthony] comes off the floor, to have him a little bit fresher.”
So, George, who finished with 27 points and eight rebounds, watched the middle of the first and third from an unfamiliar spot: the bench.
Donovan pulled him with 5:28 remaining in the initial period. He put him back in with 4:05 to go, when George replaced Westbrook, who subbed out about a minute earlier than usual. And whether it’s coincidence or correlated, George had his most productive stretch of the game during the beginning of the second quarter, when he scored the first 11 points of the period.
It was the most obvious of a few tweaks from Donovan, which made Sunday feel a bit more playoff-like than it could have.
“At the end of the day, we both want what’s best for the team and what’s going to work best going forward,” George said. “We’re trying to gear up and have a rotation set for the playoffs.”
Donovan’s coaching made the evening's context obvious.
With only five games to go in the season heading into Sunday, Oklahoma City needed a win over the Pelicans to avoid falling to seventh or eighth in the Western Conference. So, he pulled George with just over five minutes to go in the third, as well. He used him to begin the second and fourth quarters. He put Westbrook, who went for 26 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists, back in the game with 10-and-a-half minutes to go in the second and fourth periods, about two minutes earlier than usual.
He cut the rotation to from 10 to nine, as well, on a night when usual contributor Terrance Ferguson didn’t play.
The adjustments helped Donovan avoid using the all-bench lineup he’s turned to so often this year. At any given moment, the Thunder had either George or Westbrook on the floor.
“It was a way to kind of stagger those guys a little bit, particularly Russell and Paul,” Donovan said. “I don’t know if it’s why we won the game tonight, but I think hopefully, I’ll get a chance to talk to Paul and Russell more to see what their feelings were.”
Sunday’s win coupled with Minnesota’s loss vaulted Oklahoma City to fifth in the West, where fourth through eighth place remains separated by only two games. The Thunder sit only a half a game back of San Antonio, a half a game up on Utah, one up on Minnesota and one-and-a-half up on New Orleans. Of those teams, they own the tiebreaker over only the Jazz.
But they’re showing signs of how they could value minutes come the postseason. Donovan isn’t the type to cut a rotation down to eight, but he is one to play around with substitution patterns until he finds ones he likes.
He's often quick to point out that his rotations have something to do with his opponent. And the Thunder’s first-round matchup remains in question — though their chances at making it into the postseason are becoming more and more likely. Yet, Sunday’s move didn’t have anything to do with the Pelicans, he said. It was one made for preparation.
With only four games left now — including ones against powerhouses, like Golden State and Houston — and with all of them essential, maybe it’s the start of a new routine.
“It was just something, I thought, to take a look at, see how it goes,” Donovan said. “And we’ll go from there…I was going to try to do that regardless of [if it was against] the Pelicans or somebody else.”
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.