By Randy Renner
Thunder shooting guard Andre Roberson, sidelined about a month with a sprained knee, will be back in the starting tonight when the Thunder play the Mavericks in Dallas.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan made the announcement he was switching back to Roberson from Dion Waiters during the team's shootaround today at the American Airlines Center.
“I think he’s had a couple of good days," Donovan said of Roberson. "I think the other thing for him is, obviously he’s a terrific defender and a key component to our team. It has less to do with Dion and more to do with Dre in terms of having a guy that’s been out here for a few weeks, instead of him getting into a position where we’re not utilizing him at the level we can utilize him at.
"Then all of a sudden coming down the stretch right now I don’t know how we would get him back into being in the role and position he was in before he got hurt. How he responds? Obviously this is his first game…didn’t play last game against Cleveland, he’s had some contact practices, I feel good about where he’s at. Now, the rust (after) three weeks, that could be a little bit tough, but I still think Andre’s an important piece and I want to give him an opportunity to get back to where he was before."
The Thunder do seem to need Roberson on the floor. Say what you will about whether Roberson is an elite defender or not, the team’s defensive statistics are much better with Roberson on the floor than off.
According to advanced stats from VantageSports.com the Thunder have allowed opponents to shoot 46.56 percent (24th in the NBA) over the last month while Roberson has been hurt. Over the same time frame OKC is 29th in forced turnovers and dead last in passes denied per 100 chances (1.47).
Specifically with regards to Roberson being on and off the court via @AndrewSchlecht the defensive numbers are particularly revealing.
Opponents are shooting 45.93 percent this season when Roberson is off the court and 42.62 percent when he’s on. OKC denies 2.38 passes per 100 chances when Roberson is on the floor and 1.63 when he’s off.
On the hand the offensive numbers tend to dip when Roberson is on the floor and get better when he’s off. But defensive inconsistencies have been a problem all season and seem to have become an even bigger issue lately.
So putting Roberson back in with the first group would appear to be an easy decicion, especially given the struggles of Waiters lately.
For a while Dion seemed to be the perfect replacement for Roberson, even after Dre became healthy again. Waiters is a better defender than he’s given credit for and he’d been a much better offensive player.
Lately though Waiters scoring punch has left him. He’s missed eight straight 3s and is just 2-for-16 on 3s over his last three games. Stretching it out further he’s shooting 35.3 percent from deep over his last 10 games and 37.2 percent overall.
Waiters told reporters after practice Tuesday in OKC he remains confident.
“I’m gonna make shots, I’m gonna miss shots,” he said. “Just gotta continue to be the same person no matter what the situation and never get to high and never get too low. Gotta stay in between and that’s me. Missing shots ain’t never gonna bother me, even if I go 0-for-10 I’m gonna take the next one.”
And Donovan said yesterday just because Waiters isn’t shooting well doesn’t mean he’s not playing well.
“I know there’s a lot been made of his shooting and the ball not going in the basket,” Donovan acknowledged. “But I’ve always said this: Dion’s got a lot of other things he can do.’
Donovan continues to say Waiters defense has maintained a high level and so has his passing.
“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 sure people would be looking at that and saying ‘geez, he’s not playing great.’”
Though people do tend to point out Enes Kanter’s lack of defense, even when he scores 15 points and grabs 10 rebounds, so Billy may be off on his assessment there but he continued, “I think the point that needs to be made about Dion is that he’s not shot the ball well. I don’t think it’s fair to say he has not played well.”
So it will be interesting to see how Donovan goes tonight against Dallas now that Roberson is back in the starting lineup. Is Waiters the first guy off the bench? Or does he sit him more than maybe he normally because of his struggles?
Kevin Durant has supported Waiters throughout but he certainly liked what he saw from Roberson in a spirited scrimmage session toward the end of Tuesday’s practice.
“He looks good, he looks good. I’m happy he’s back. We’ve definitely missed him. He’s a key part of our team.”
Durant has also clearly moved on from OKC’s embarrassing blowout loss to Cleveland. He had a sharp response when The Oklahoman’s Anthony Slater asked about what the film of Sunday’s game revealed.
“That game was two days ago man, we didn’t even talk about it (Tuesday). Just worked on what we needed to work on. We lost a game to a good team by 20. What else you wanna know? Didn’t defend like we wanted to, didn’t make shots. Keep it black and white since that’s what everyone else wants to do.”
Not sure exactly what he meant by that last sentence but it does appear the Thunder struggles at times are becoming more and more frustrating to Durant. Donovan sounded frustrated the day before when he talked about the same problems cropping up that have been off and on issues all season long.
The Mavericks have lost all three games they’ve played against the Thunder this season but two of those games came down to the last couple possessions and the other was a blowout Thunder win when the Mavs rested all five of their normal starters.
The Thunder enjoyed an average rebound margin of plus-10.7 in those three wins. They played without Durant in one of those games and Russell Westbrook only lasted 14 scoreless minutes in that 108-89 rout in January after he was ejected for an incident with pain-in-the-butt Dallas guard J.J. Barea.
Dallas made a move Monday to bolster its frontcourt by signing former All-Star David Lee three days after he was waived by Boston. Lee, an All-Star with New York in 2010 and Golden State in 2013, has career averages of 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds but also had limited minutes with the Celtics this season.
"Sometimes we have issues with our rebounding, so he should help us there," superstar Dirk Nowitzki told the Mavericks' official website. "And I just think it's another solid veteran that wants to win and knows how to play."
Dallas went 1-2 in a stretch of three straight overtime games before crushing league-worst Philadelphia 129-103 on Sunday. Wesley Matthews scored 21 and Nowitzki added 18 as the Mavs led by as many as 30 to end a three-game home slide in the first of six straight in Dallas.
The Thunder are beginning a grueling stretch of six road games separated by a home tussle with Golden State. OKC is on the road tomorrow night in New Orleans, then host the Warriors on Saturday before flying out on a four-game road swing that includes a back-to-back with the Clippers and Warriors along with contests in Sacramento and Milwaukee.
The Thunder have won seven of their last 10 games but those three losses were all against teams currently in playoff position, giving them a 13-13 record against teams currently in playoff spots this season.
So the challenge is clear. Whether the Thunder can rise up to meet that challenge remains a bit cloudy.
Tipoff is set for 7:30 tonight and you can see the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma.