CLEVELAND — The basketball gods were not messing around. Not even two minutes in, and they were already toying with Oklahoma City Thunder defensive stopper Andre Roberson.
Roberson had missed the Thunder’s previous eight games because of left patellar tendinitis before returning for Wednesday’s 114-90 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the first time he’d played since Dec. 29.
He spliced back into OKC’s starting lineup, taking back the spot rookie wing Terrance Ferguson had held in his stead. But he knew he couldn’t run like his usual self — or for his usual amount of time.
Coach Billy Donovan went into the evening without a strict minutes restriction for Roberson but still with the intent of limiting his playing time.
“He [hadn’t] practiced,” Donovan said. “The first thing you’re looking at is, how well is he moving?”
Nearly any lower-limb injury limits the amount of time a player can spend on calisthenics while out of the lineup. That remained true for Roberson, who progressed toward running and jumping before his return, but was not all the way in game shape once he stepped on the floor against the Lakers.
“ It was good overall,” Roberson said. “Slightly winded, but that’s expected.”
It’s why the sport’s sense of humor showed Wednesday, when Roberson received a pass from Russell Westbrook only a minute-and-a-half into the game and soared for a dunk, his first slam in three weeks.
He was admittedly nervous entering the game. He didn’t even know he’d be playing until that day. The nerves went away once he landed.
“When I dunked, I was a little scared,” he said. “But after that, I was good. Didn’t feel any pain. And after that, [I] just felt great.”
The special part about Roberson’s 17 minutes against the Lakers was that he didn’t look special at all.
He cut off the ball like himself. He finished that dunk from Westbrook off one of them. He placed in a reverse layup off another. Those were his only two shot attempts of the night.
He guarded Los Angeles’ young wings, specifically the never-ending Brandon Ingram, whose arms are so long that when he and his teammates went to see a movie at Harkins Bricktown Cinema the other night, they joked that the soon-to-release movie “Slender Man” was about him — and then posted videos about it on Instagram. The reigning All-Defensive Second Team member looked like himself against Ingram’s length. He looked like himself defending off the ball.
“He’s a guy who will change the dynamic of our team defensively,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He showed that tonight. He uplifts us as a team.”
Though it recovered in recent games against the sub-.500 Charlotte Hornets and Sacramento Kings, the Thunder defense mostly struggled in Roberson’s absence. Aside from one garbage-time outburst from Ferguson in Los Angeles, the offense didn’t receive much of an upgrade, either.
Roberson’s return may have come against the hapless Lakers, but it was just in time. The Thunder play the Cleveland Cavaliers, who bomb 3s and have the man who still owns the title of Best Player in the World. They’ll need Roberson then.
Wednesday provided nothing special, nothing unusual. But that’s just what the Thunder wanted: just a healthy, normal Andre Roberson.
“He was moving like the old Andre,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think he was a step slow. Just needed some time to get back. That was encouraging. So, for the 17 minutes he played, I thought he did a great job.”
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.