OKLAHOMA CITY — Using Alex Abrines with the starting lineup was going to give the Oklahoma City Thunder the perfect mix of offense.
That was the plan coming into the season. Abrines could provide spacing and shooting in place of usual starting shooting guard Andre Roberson. He wouldn’t start, but coach Billy Donovan could use him in the right moments next to the Thunder’s other four starters, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams.
The Thunder now expect Roberson, who missed Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks because of left patellar tendinitis, to sit out at least the next three games (at the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers and Phoenix Suns), Donovan told reporters Tuesday. He is still, however, traveling with the team on the three-game road trip. He will be reevaluated next week.
Donovan, however, got away from Abrines, who started in place of Roberson for a couple of games earlier this month, Sunday. Instead, it was third-year wing Josh Huestis who started against the Mass. The lineup data could indicate why.
The Thunder’s starters have been dominant all season, outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions, eighth in the NBA amongst lineups which have played more than 200 minutes.
The lineup Donovan has played second-most? That’s the one which splices Abrines into the first unit for Roberson. But that group hasn’t found close to the same success.
Instead, it’s getting outscored by 7.7 points per 100, a 19-point swing per 100 possessions. Nearly all of the fall off comes because of the defense, which is 19.7 points per 100 worse with Abrines playing alongside the starters instead of Roberson. In fact, defense falls off almost no matter who plays with Abrines.
“There’s times where they’re trying to attack Alex. They’re trying to do things to put him in difficult situations that he has to guard,” Donovan said. “But I’ve always said this: part of our defense is a team defense. He’s got to have help.”
Donovan has consistently discussed the need for Abrines to improve his defense.
To put in perspective how large a difference 19.7 points per 100 is, the difference between the Boston Celtics’ NBA-best defense and Sacramento Kings’ NBA-worst is just 9.2 points per 100.
Donovan is yet to name a starter in Roberson’s place for Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
• Roberson’s return: The Thunder have three winnable games on their West Coast swing, but they could miss Roberson during each of them. The team has allowed just 96.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor this year, the best figure for any qualifying player averaging more than 20 minutes in the NBA.
He made All-Defensive Second Team a season ago. This year, he has a case for the first team. Donovan is touting him a little further than that.
“He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever been around and ever seen,” Donovan said of Roberson’s perimeter defense. “There’s a lot of great defenders in this league. I think he’s certainly right up there with the best of them, if not the best.”
• Nearing health: The Lakers haven’t had their full roster of late, but they’re nearing that status as they get ready for Wednesday.
Rookie point guard Lonzo Ball (left shoulder sprain) and center Brook Lopez (sprained right ankle) have been cleared for practice. Both are listed as questionable for the Thunder game.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.