In reference to the ridiculous ending of Friday night’s game, as the classic line goes, “I’m not mad I’m just disappointed.”
Being angry won’t change the outcome. The last two-minute report coming out to say that a mistake was made on the final play won’t change the outcome. Talking about how a couple missed free throws or turnovers would’ve made the final play irrelevant… won’t change the outcome.
But it’s disappointing. First that Derrick Stafford, a veteran of three decades as an NBA referee, wouldn’t think to glance down at Giannis Antetokounmpo’s feet as he strode literally inches away from him along the baseline.
Secondly, that the officiating crew was not able to review the replay (or maybe they were?), considering there was even a stoppage of play afterward in which 10,000 fans were making the referees aware of their mistake.
And finally the knowledge that results are binary — wins and losses, 1’s and 0’s — and can’t reflect the nature of this defeat, that’s disappointing. In a season with so much parity, one win could be the difference between playoff seeds, first and second round opponents.
Not to be too dramatic, but think about those implications. A seeding is affected, a playoff opponent is changed, and suddenly the labeling of the entire season can shift from success to failure. Would that scenario possibly even impact Paul George’s free agency decision? So it matters.
But all is not lost and the fact that the Thunder was able to rally from 22 points down against a good Bucks team without Paul George, a potent offensive weapon and the team’s best foil for Antetokounmpo, is one more encouraging data point in the recent positive trend.
How did the team get down 22 points, you ask? Rarely is a singular cause so easy to spot.
Alex Abrines, who got the starting nod in place of the injured George, simply couldn’t justify being on the court. After giving up two open threes to Khris Middleton early, he was subbed out six minutes into the game. When he came back in three minutes later, Middleton immediately picked up an and-one. When Middleton checked out, Tony Snell hit three triples, and Abrines fouled on another and-one after letting Malcolm Brogdan sneak back door.
When the quarter ended, he never saw the floor again. Final line: 10 minutes played and a plus-minus of -24, as the Bucks built up their 22-point lead that the Thunder spent the rest of the game fighting back from. Ouch.
Even before the game, Billy Donovan said of Abrines’ defense: “He’s never gonna be Andre Roberson. He’s not.” After the performance on Friday, that admission felt a little like the “Can’t play Kanter” lipread from last year’s playoffs, a rare moment of clarity amongst Donovan’s generic coachspeak.
The statistics back it up. Abrines is averaging eight minutes per game over the past five games. Now it can be explained in part because Abrines has been ill, but this isn’t the first time he’s found himself warming the bench. There was a four game stretch in early November where he averaged 11.3 minutes per game, and a five game stretch at the end of November where he played just 17 minutes combined. It should be noted that his recent reduction of playing time has coincided with a six-game winning streak, and the best stretch of play the team has put together all season.
That’s not to say that Abrines is a worthless player. He’s only 24-years-old and possesses the most valuable skill in the modern NBA: outside shooting. He’s brought his three-point percentage up from the depths to 38 percent, equivalent to the rate he was shooting last season, and in games where he’s played more than 20 minutes, that average goes up to an impressive 47 percent from deep.
But the Thunder is at a point where it’s beginning to figure things out, and moving forward consistently will be very valuable. Josh Huestis is up to nearly 20 minutes per game over these past five games, is a net positive defensively and can fill most of Abrines’ deep threat at nearly 35 percent. With the current roster, he’s a much more logical fit.
Which makes Abrines the Thunder’s most valuable trade asset, right?
I’ve said since the beginning of the season to not expect any mid-season trades for the Thunder this year, and the smart money is still on that to come true. But if there is a move to be made, it almost certainly would include Abrines.
If nothing else, his playing time is a storyline to watch over the next week.
Are Alex Abrines’ days numbered in Oklahoma City?