6 min read

OKC creates a house of Payne for Milwaukee


A game against the Milwaukee Bucks in late December seems like your typical run of the mill game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. While the Thunder looked sluggish in the first 16-20 minutes of the game, they were able to take care of business and claim a 131-123 victory. Russell Westbrook led the Thunder with 27 points, and Kevin Durant added 26. While the victory is solid, the Thunder might have gained something even more valuable during the game.

Westbrook checked out at the 2:35 mark of the opening quarter for a break. No big deal, right? Wrong. Instead of veteran D.J. Augustin checking in as Westbrook’s backup, rookie Cameron Payne entered. This is a move that many observers have been clamoring for, for quite some time. Payne responded in a big way by scoring 16 points in just 15 minutes. He was 5-of-6 from the field and a 2-of-3 from 3-point range in the victory.

“It’s all because of my teammates,” Payne told the Thunder television broadcast after the game. “They kept encouraging me. I just played ball. Energy and intensity got us the win.”

Augustin is a proven veteran, but he hasn’t done much of anything when he’s out on the floor for the Thunder this season. Whether it be facilitating for the likes of Enes Kanter or simply defending his position, Augustin wasn’t up to snuff. Going to the rookie was a move that needed to be done to further examine what the Thunder have coming off the bench. Thunder coach Billy Donovan went to bat for Augustin after the game.

“D.J., in my opinion, has done a good job. He’s a veteran guy, been in this league for eight years. He’s got a lot of experience under his belt,” Donovan said. “For Cameron, he came in very, very humble. I think he’s worked very, very hard. I give him a lot of credit for staying ready. I thought maybe putting him in there could give our second-unit, our subs a little bit of a jolt. Could it have been done a little bit sooner? Maybe, maybe not. I thought DJ while he was out there did a nice job for us. I trust D.J.. It’s a long year. Still got a lot of games left. A lot of things can happen.”

OKC making this move clearly expresses their desire to figure out a critical piece to the puzzle. Making the move to Payne now gives the Thunder time to make a decision on what to do with the backup point position between now and the trade deadline in February. It’s clearly an area of need or they wouldn’t have made a shift to their rotation. Now they can determine what their next course of action should be. If Tuesday is any indication, things are headed in the right direction.

“He’s a point guard,” Durant said of Payne. “He’s a natural point guard, been that way his whole life. I could tell when I first saw him play. He’s looking, his eyes are always moving up the court when we’re in transition. He’s not trying to score. He’s looking for everybody else. That’s good to have on our team.”

Let’s be very clear: giving Payne more of a look isn’t going to be a cosmic shift in OKC’s order of operation. Westbrook is going to play nearly 35 minutes a game. What’s becoming more and more clear is that Westbrook is going to be logging those minutes as the team’s point guard. Experimenting with him as the shooting guard is always worth trying. Based off Payne’s performance Tuesday, Donovan gave it a try in the fourth quarter for a small stretch. As it stands right now, the minutes are limited for the backup point guard, and that just means that the minutes are going to be extremely valuable.

OKC’s supporting cast, mainly the bench, is always going to be a topic of conversation. The backup point guard is supposed to be a stabilizing influence on that group. While Augustin clearly hasn’t been the answer, that doesn’t mean that Payne is going to take care of everything. It’s clear that he has to work on his defense. It was quite evident that the eyes of Milwaukee’s guards collectively lit up when they saw Payne was on the floor. He was charged with two fouls within the first minute of his time on the floor. What else is clear is that Payne is capable of being a positive influence when he’s given minutes.

No matter whether you are starting or coming off the bench, playing point guard in the NBA is no easy task. There’s a learning curve that Payne will to have to work through.

“I would caution everybody, that it’s one game,” Donovan stressed after the game. “I know he played well in the last game, but he’s going to have his ups and downs, too. I’m prepared to see him go through some of those struggles. He’s a rookie, and he’s going to have some experiences like that. He did a great job tonight. I was really, really happy for him personally because of the time and the effort he’s put into it. I thought he gave us a nice boost.”

Payne passed his first test against the Bucks. Change is hard to do, no matter what the subject is. Donovan at least considering looking at Payne for the time being is a change that was worth making.


  • In the end, Milwaukee ran out of gas late in the game. Tuesday’s game marked the second night of a back-to-back for the Bucks (they lost to the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas). They have now completed two games of their four game road trip, losing 14 of their last 15 games on the road. The Bucks showed so much promise over the last two seasons but have reached a wall of sorts. There’s potential there, but they’ve got to take that next step as a team. Injuries have played a role in things, but they’re no longer a team that sneaks up on their opponent. It’s part of the learning curve an organization has to go through as they look to grow.
  • Kanter is finding himself in a very nice groove offensively right now for the Thunder. He scored 21 points and pulled down eight rebounds in 25 minutes of action Sunday. Kanter followed that up with 23 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes of action Tuesday. He’s not doing anything special, honestly; he’s just playing his game. Kanter has done a great job of just coming in, being aggressive, and being strong in the paint. He’s able to feast against opposing team’s backup bigs and that’s going to be a situation where he’s going to thrive. We’ve seen what a best-case scenario Kanter brings to the table on offense over the last two games.
  • After a questionable start to the game in terms of flow, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that OKC found their way in the second quarter due to making frequent trips to the free throw line. OKC went a perfect 13-of-13 from the free throw line in the second quarter. As a frame of reference, Milwaukee went 6-of-11 from the line in the first half. OKC ended up being plus-22 on points via free throws in the game. The ability to get to the line is going to be a great equalizer for the Thunder when their offense happens to get stagnant.
  • OKC is now 14-3 this season when their bench outscores the opposing team’s reserves. Additionally, they are 20-2 this season when their bench scores 29-plus points. What’s promising about Tuesday’s game is that they scored 53 points and Dion Waiters was 1-of-6 from the field and scored just two points. It seemed as if there was a semblance of balance outside of Durant and Westbrook. That’s something the Thunder will need as the season continues. Theoretically, things should get better overall as Payne gets more and more time with the supporting cast.
  • The win moved the Thunder’s record against the Eastern Conference to 7-8. The eight losses against the East rank as the most by a team in the West’s top eight. Heading into Tuesday’s games, the Golden State Warriors , San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Clippers have combined to lose a total of seven games against the Eastern Conference. Moving to 7-8 is nothing to write home about, but they need to right this trend in order to further establish dominance.
  • Westbrook and Steven Adams were having a discussion on the sideline during a timeout in the opening quarter. The two were talking about a play where Westbrook went under a screen, leaving Michael Carter-Williams open to take a 17-foot jumper. Adams was asking if he needed to do anything different. “Nah,” Westbrook said. “He can’t shoot.” I doubt MCW has rabbit ears and took umbrage with the remark, but he did finish the game 8-of-14 from the field for 19 points. That said, I would consider this more of an anomaly.
  • Props to the in-game entertainment crew for the Thunder. They played the theme from Laverne and Shirley as the Bucks were introduced. Teams will often play a generic visiting theme that expresses a villainess presence. The Thunder decided to zig when most would zag. Good call.

Next up: Home against Phoenix on Thursday.