The Raptors are great. They’re virtually a lock to finish the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, and they’re the only team in the NBA’s top five in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency, and they’d come into Sunday having won 11 in a row, and 18 of 19, and with a league-best 29-5 record at home. They’re great.
All of that made their loss Sunday, at home, to a frustrating Thunder squad starting Corey Brewer at shooting guard, genuinely a huh development. How’d that happen? Well, for starters, Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams were terrific:
But this is as good a time as any to note that the Thunder are a truly fucking ridiculous 6-0 since they made Corey Brewer a starter. Corey Brewer. This was cute and funny when it was four straight, and three of the wins had come over Sacramento, Atlanta, and Phoenix, but it is no longer a laughing matter. Their last two wins have come over a desperate Clippers team and the NBA’s best home team. Again I want to stress that this was done while Corey Effing Brewer was starting in their backcourt. He’s played more than 30 minutes in each of their last five games.
Part of what made Andre Roberson’s season-ending injury such a damn bummer back in late January was how excellent OKC’s starting lineup had been, and how tricky it would be to replicate Roberson’s defensive excellence from among the team’s available reserves, let alone on the buyout market. The Thunder snagged Brewer after he was bought out by the Lakers after the trade deadline. Roughly no one outside the Thunder organization expected Brewer to be anything other than a warm body; the worst-case scenario involved Billy Donovan reaching back to his history with Brewer at the University of Florida as a rationale for giving Brewer major rotation minutes. That he would be starting after three games in a Thunder uniform was inconceivable.
And here we are! On the season, Brewer is shooting 28.2 percent from beyond the arc; as a member of the Thunder, that number is 42.9 percent, on more than three times as many attempts per game. His True Shooting with the Lakers was a lousy 50.9; with the Thunder it’s a sparkling 64.2. You can kind of see why this might not be all that sustainable!
Donovan leaned heavily on his starting group in Toronto, and they responded with a dominant plus-19 showing in 25 minutes. Brewer finished with 10 points on eight shots, plus three steals, in 28 minutes of burn. It’s the sixth time in eight games with the Thunder that he’s finished with at least 10 points; he’s averaging more than 2.5 steals per game as a Thunder starter. This is getting absurd. Were it not for the Florida connection, it’s likely Brewer would not be on an NBA team right now.
However insane and improbable this run has been, it has been beautifully timed: the Thunder now find themselves fourth in the West, and a couple games clear of the 5th-seed Jazz, with 10 games left on their schedule. How in the hell they’ll make Corey Brewer work as a starter in the playoff crucible is anyone’s guess, but his twitchy energy and transition relentlessness and all-too-willing shooting have helped power the Thunder through their second-longest winning streak of the season. Here’s his excellent 22-point, six-steal performance in Friday’s win over the Clippers:
Gotta admit, his full-throttle transition attacking is infectious, and fun as hell, and tends generally to accrue to his team’s benefit. No, Corey Brewer will not continue to knock down 43 percent of his threes—he hasn’t knocked down more than 31 percent of his threes in any season since 2010, for crying out loud—and even while it’s working it feels like the Thunder are inflicting self-injury by not committing themselves to developing a better option. But that second backcourt spot is a vulnerability: Alex Abrines had a minus-12.9 net rating as a starter in Roberson’s absence; Terrance Ferguson was an only slightly less miserable minus-9.6 during his stint in the spot. Wing jobs are tough to fill, and OKC’s options get less pleasant from there: Josh Huestis is a forward; P.J. Dozier is a developmental guy; Kyle Singler is a stiff.
If Corey Brewer is OKC’s best option, they’ll almost certainly find themselves in deep shit once the playoffs start. But it’s working in the meantime, when the solution is desperately needed. Who the hell knows.