The Oklahoma City Thunder already belong among the NBA's elite. They boast two of the game's best players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the league's fourth-best record, behind only the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers.
But even the cream of the crop can find other ways to rise to the top. For the Thunder, the challenge has been coming up with a group that can stand on its own two feet without any assistance from the team's dynamic duo.
NBA.com's David Aldridge noted as much Monday: "Billy Donovan trying to find a combination when KD/W'Brook aren't on the floor that works."
If Tuesday's 131-123 win over the Milwaukee Bucks was any indication, Donovan and the Thunder may have found the proper cast to support their superstars—and perhaps push their NBA title hopes over the hump.
OKC's reserves combined for 53 points on 63.3 percent shooting—51 points on 75 percent shooting if you remove Dion Waiters' 1-of-6 showing from the equation—in a furiously paced win over the young-legged Bucks at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The usual suspects got in plenty of licks, too. Durant and Westbrook totaled as many points as OKC's entire bench while out-assisting (15-5) and nearly out-rebounding (13-14) the reserves.
But their brilliance could hardly obscure the sturdy work Anthony Morrow, Enes Kanter and Cameron Payne turned in.
Morrow made his typical mark from deep, draining three of five threes. Kanter outscored OKC's starting frontcourt of Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, 23-19.
Both benefitted from Payne's breakout performance. The rookie out of Murray State scored a career-high 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting and dished out a trio of dimes, including this nifty no-looker through a crowd to Kanter, courtesy of the NBA:
The connection between Payne and Kanter is an emerging staple of the Thunder's second unit. The two hooked up twice during OKC's 122-112 victory at the Denver Nuggets' expense Sunday.
"I really like playing with him," Kanter said after that win, per the Oklahoman's Anthony Slater. "If he gives me an assist, he looks at me like, 'You're welcome.'"
Durant and Westbrook owe Payne and his cohort a "thank you" or two as well.
More often than not, the Thunder struggle when their resident cornerstones ride the pine at the same time. According to NBA Wowy, OKC has been outscored by nearly six points per 100 possessions when Durant and Westbrook sit on the bench together:
|OKC's Net Rating with and without KD and Russ|
|With KD and Russ||Plus-17.1|
|With Russ, without KD||Plus-5.6|
|With KD, without Russ||Minus-0.4|
|Without KD and Russ||Minus-5.6|
But against Milwaukee, it was the reserves who had the biggest impact on the Thunder's scoring-column cushion. Morrow led the way at plus-16, with Nick Collison (plus-11) and Kanter (plus-10) extending that particular parade.
Payne's plus-minus (plus-1) barely scratched the surface of his overall impact and won't likely keep him from slipping past D.J. Augustin in the race to be Westbrook's backup. As Slater explained:
While Payne has played well in the D-League and impressed behind the scenes, Augustin, the established veteran in front of him, has slipped into a shooting slump. Already undersized and often exploited on defense, Augustin is shooting just 27 percent in December and has made only three of his past 13 threes. It's been one of the main reasons the Thunder's second-unit has struggled of late.
To an extent, that second unit got an assist from the Bucks' dearth of depth. Giannis Antetokounmpo (27 points, 10 rebounds), Khris Middleton (a career-high 36 points, seven assists) and Michael Carter-Williams (19 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) did their part to keep the team within arm's reach of their hosts. But the bench—26th in the NBA in scoring, per HoopsStats—barely broke its season average of 29.6 points with 32 in the Sooner State.
Someday, Milwaukee might cobble together the proper role players to surround its maturing stars and compete for the franchise's first championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known as Lew Alcindor.
Until then, the Thunder will be busy banging out wins and chasing banners behind their superstars and the Ibaka-Adams tandem—and the spunky contributors coming up big behind them—like any elite team would.
Balance Brings Knicks Back to Life
It had been a week-and-a-half since the New York Knicks won a game and two-and-a-half weeks since they last put six or more players into double digits in the same game. On Tuesday, both streaks came to a swift end with New York's 108-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden.
Per usual, Carmelo Anthony paced all participants with 24 points. Unlike typical 'Melo, though, he led all Knicks in assists with six.
Robin Lopez and rookie Kristaps Porzingis bullied their way to a combined 21 points and eight blocks while holding Andre Drummond to 5-of-15 shooting and Detroit to 36 points in the paint. Jose Calderon drained a trio of threes and chipped in four helpers of his own.
The most surprising boosts came from the bench. Kyle O'Quinn was in double figures early in the second quarter. Derrick Williams later joined him after some serious dunks.
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Those slams upstaged Brandon Jennings' solid but unspectacular return. He played 17 minutes and added seven points and four rebounds to the Pistons' cause.
The more New York spreads the wealth in the triangle offense, the more noise the team will be able to make in the Eastern Conference. Including their latest effort, the Knicks have averaged 4.9 scorers in double digits in their 15 wins and just four across their 18 defeats.
Rockets Rattled by Soaring Hawks
J.B. Bickerstaff sounds a lot like the late Rodney Dangerfield these days. In the wake of a 110-108 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, the Houston Rockets' interim coach bemoaned the lack of respect his team has shown the sport it's paid to play.
"Over and over again, we've disrespected the game," Bickerstaff said, per the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. "Our priorities need to be clear, and I need to do a better job of playing people whose priorities are clear."
Apparently, those priorities are still out of sorts. On Tuesday, the Rockets gave away a 19-point lead—and a season-best showing from Dwight Howard (30 points, 16 rebounds)—in a 121-115 loss to the red-hot Atlanta Hawks.
For Atlanta, it was the seventh win in eight games and the 21st of the 2015-16 season, as many as the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers (more on them in a bit). The Hawks took 27 more shots than Houston, including 21 more from three, thanks to a 17-7 edge on the offensive boards and seven fewer turnovers.
After the Rockets ran out of whatever fuel they had used to score a season-high 71 first-half points, the Hawks took flight with 65 points after the break.
As a result, Bickerstaff will have to wait before he retires his Dangerfield routine.
Grizzlies Grind Out Overtime Win vs. Miami
Slowly but surely, the Memphis Grizzlies are turning up the speed of their offensive metronome. With Matt Barnes and Courtney Lee replacing Zach Randolph and Tony Allen in the starting lineup, the Grizzlies have their sights set on an attack organized around Mike Conley-Marc Gasol pick-and-rolls.
"Man, I love it, actually," Conley told Aldridge. "It's a lot more freedom, a lot more vision. I can see things a lot better. It's not so much clogged up. And it's going to take a matter of time."
It'll take even more with Barnes serving a suspension for his training-camp tiff with former teammate and current Knicks head coach Derek Fisher. Against the Miami Heat, Memphis' return to its sluggish ways was perfectly appropriate.
The Grizzlies ground out just 83 points in regulation, but those were enough to force overtime and afford Memphis an opportunity to pull out a 99-90 win at the Grind House.
Despite scoring just a single bucket in transition and launching a mere 15 three-pointers, Memphis managed to fend off the league's second-slowest squad, per NBA.com. Marc Gasol led all scorers with 23, while Z-Bo chipped in 17 points while reprising his longtime role.
There may not be many nights like this for the Grizzlies going forward, which makes it all the more important for folks in Memphis to steal whatever glimpses they can of the old Grit N' Grind in action.
LeBron, Cavs Earn New Year's Break
What do you get the man who has everything for his birthday? How about some good, old-fashioned rest and relaxation?
That's what LeBron James may be enjoying most as he turns 31 on Wednesday. In the swan song of his 31st year, James powered his way to a game-high 34 points to hold the Denver Nuggets at bay in a 93-87 win for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The win concluded a challenging stretch for the defending Eastern Conference champions. The Cavs played four games in five nights on the road, beginning with losses at Golden State and Portland and ending with wins in Phoenix and Denver. In between, Cleveland sat through yet another team meeting—this time with head coach David Blatt not only present but setting the tone.
"In tough times you've got to show a little bit of leadership and lift your troops," Blatt explained to Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes in Arizona. "That was the whole purpose of it, to fire them up a little bit and lift them a little bit. They certainly this year have been doing their part, and I had to step in [and] do something myself."
Now, the Cavaliers can take some time to cool down and see how they feel about keeping Tristan Thompson as the starter at center. Cleveland doesn't play again until Saturday, when the upstart Orlando Magic come to town.
No wonder James was so chipper in the Mile High City.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.