Rockets Thunder Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Kenrich Williams, left, shoots in front of Houston Rockets guard Ben McLemore (16) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Oklahoma City.

It’s been ridiculous getting to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder defy the lack of success they ought to be suffering.

That is, watching OKC’s net rating remain among the league’s worst — 29th of 30 teams — even as it hangs near .500 has been very satisfying.

It continues to this day.

The Thunder play host this evening, and Saturday evening, to Minnesota, the first of which they’ll take a 9-11 record into despite that horrid net rating.

As it happens, only Minnesota (5-16) sports a worse net rating (-8.3) than Oklahoma City (-7.0), so if you’re in the camp that wants the Thunder to win now, rather than hovering near it, they might actually be .500 by Sunday.

So there is that.

However, there is now something else. There is the mere fact the Thunder beat the Houston Rockets 104-87 Wednesday night, because it’s no mere fact at all.

Instead, it’s a telltale sign of the kind of beyond-due diligence the Thunder practice when acquiring players, even at a time management might be willing to take losses, treading water before chasing championships again.

Two days earlier, the Rockets had destroyed Oklahoma City 136-106, a game in which the Thunder’s two best players — Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Lu Dort — played a combined 53 minutes, scored a combined 22 points, grabbed a combined eight rebounds and dished a combined six assists.

They didn’t enjoy big games and played less minutes than they typically would have because the game was out of reach so quickly. Nonetheless, the plan wasn’t to lose big and any type of Thunder victory would have presumably gone through them. It just didn’t happen.

So, two nights later, inside the same gym, against the same team, Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t play at all due to pregame knee stiffness and after the half, a bum knee also the culprit, Dort didn’t play either. So, naturally, the Thunder … won anyway, 104-87.

Though not one that grabbed the nation, it was just an NBA regular-season game on a Wednesday, that’s an upset of Buster Douglas proportions.

How on earth did it happen?

The Rockets were without John Wall, but they’d also won six straight and just crushed the Thunder. Their confidence should have been off the charts.

The only explanation is the care and precision OKC puts into scouting and personnel decisions; an explanation that works for one game or a whole season in which the Thunder, who some might have thought were constructed to tank, can’t begin to do it.

Plus-minus isn’t a perfect stat but it’s capable of exposing deep truths and against the Rockets Wednesday, only Dort, during the nine first-half minutes he played, was in the positive for Thunder starters and only +1.

But the Thunder bench?

Holy cow: Justin Jackson (+11); Kenrich Williams (+24); Isaiah Roby (+19); Mike Muscala (+19); Darius Miller (+19).

Williams finished with 19 points, six rebounds and turned the ball over only once.

Had he not been thrown into the Chris Paul trade, he could be playing with Paul in Phoenix right now.

That could wear on him, he could be upset about it. He didn’t ask to join a team in transition in a weird weather city in the middle of the continent.

He was asked how fun it was to be part of a second unit that played so well.

“Super fun,” he said. “It’s fun every day.”

Isaiah Roby added 13 points and made 6 of 9 shots. You might also remember the night OKC stunned Portland on the Trail Blazers home court, when Roby hit 7 of 7 free throws and 4 of 4 in the fourth quarter to keep the Thunder ahead.

He joined the franchise at last season’s trade deadline. A Mav to that point, he’d been inactive in all but one game for Dallas and the one he was active, he didn’t play. Once in Oklahoma City, he played almost 12 minutes in just three appearances and was not with the team in the Orlando bubble.

The Thunder dealt Justin Patton and cash to get him, but hardly played him. What for? Whatever, now he’s playing a lot and a lot better than any of us might have guessed.

General manager Sam Presti and staff must have known what it was doing.

Even picking up Mike Muscala prior to last season looks so much better now than it did then. He’s just a click below 40 percent from 3-point land and turning 17.9 minutes into 8.9 points.

Come to think of it, though the core of this team remains Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort and Darius Bazley, and possibly Hamidou Diallo, though he’d have to want to stay and OKC would have to want him to, too, Muscala, the remaining holdover from last season, might have a future in town, too. Who wouldn’t want him filling it up off the bench?

Really, it’s easy to decide Kevin Durant might help your team, that adding Paul George to Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers makes for a Western Conference challenger, or matching Anthony Davis with LeBron James makes the Lakers hard to beat.

But one reason the Thunder have a history of performing beyond expectation is when they go after bit players, they tend to turn out better than the bit player you presume they’ll be.

Dort, remember, was an undrafted two-way-contract guy before he became God’s gift to defending James Harden.

The judgment to get choices like that right is good news for Thunder fans right now, for the rest of the season and beyond.

Clay Horning

405 366-3526

Follow me @clayhorning

cfhorning@normantranscript.com

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