Plug and Play Bench’s Joy on Display

Newcomer Svi Mykhailiuk was on a heater, with a chance to really wow his new teammates. On back-to-back possessions, the 23-year-old Ukrainian guard had caught the ball in the corner, pump faked and buried 3-pointers as his defender flew by on a wild closeout. On the ensuing Thunder possession, there was Mykhailiuk again with a catch in the left corner, with a defender charging hard at him.

The Thunder’s bench was poised to erupt if another Mykhailiuk 3 went in, but as a second defender started towards him, the third-year sharpshooter spotted teammate Kenrich Williams up the wing. Giving up his own shot, and a heat check that no one would have questioned, Mykhailiuk created an even better look for his teammate. The energy behind the ball had undeniable positive karma, so as Williams’ shot swished through the net and the Minnesota Timberwolves called timeout, Thunder teammates were already rushing up towards half court to celebrate with their guys.

“That play really is a prime example of how we want to play,” said point guard Ty Jerome, who led the reserves with 15 points on 5-for-5 3-point shooting to go with six assists. “He just hit two. He’s hot. We made two passes to get to him. He could have taken another one, but he passed up a good shot for a great shot. That’s just how we want to play.”

“It’s awesome man,” said Mykhailiuk. “When everybody moves the ball and touches the ball, then its easier for us to make shots and make the right decisions. It was really enjoyable to play like that.”

Williams’ shot was one of 10 made 3-pointers by the Thunder’s bench on the night, just the fourth time a reserve unit has done that in Oklahoma City history. As a whole the Thunder knocked down 21 3-pointers, the third-most in team history, but it was the way the bench unit manifested those 3s that was so joyful that those good vibes emanated through television screens and back home to viewers in Oklahoma.

“It's just high, high level team basketball that I thought we displayed for much of the night,” said Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “I give our organization a lot of credit for the people they bring in. It starts there. They’re good guys. They root for each other.”

“We really embrace those moments and cherish those moments,” said third-year point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who paced the starters with 31 points.

The end result of all that basketball bliss was a 112-103 Thunder win, fueled by the 13-0 breakaway spurt in the fourth quarter kicked off by those Mykhailiuk 3-pointers. In all, it was 46 points on 16-for-26 (61.5 percent) shooting by the bench, the 16th time where the Thunder’s bench has shot 50 percent or better from the field. All four reserves came in and hit a 3, and added to the four starters who hit 3s, the result was the 23rd game this year where Daigneault’s group has had at least seven players make a 3-pointer, a top-five mark in the NBA.

“It’s super fun to watch. We know with the group of guys we have that ball movement, floor spacing is what we’re going to hang our hat on,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “The second unit came in, really moved the ball and kind of opened the game up for us a little bit.”

It’s been plug and play for the Thunder’s second unit all season, as newcomers like Mykhailiuk have meshed in with players like Ty Jerome and Moses Brown who worked their way into rhythm with the Oklahoma City Blue. There have been wily veterans in Mike Muscala and Darius Miller who have kept the group steady, while scoring outbursts have been provided by Justin Jackson even when he’s been out of the rotation for a few games.

Jackson dropped in nine points, the ever-steady Williams added 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting to go with some brawny rebounds and a trio of assists and Mykhailiuk finished with 10, including a rim-rattling two-handed dunk after charging past yet another closeout.

Through the one constant, change, the Thunder’s bench unit has maintained a focus on their jobs but also something perhaps even more important – a delight for the beautiful, flowing aspects of the game, a passion for sharing the ball to find the best shot and an unflinching support of one another on and off the floor.

“We come to a huddle and the guys are just totally supportive,” Daigneault added. “That’s a powerful dynamic inside of teams and not every team can capture it. But I give our guys a lot of credit because they are willing to commit to something bigger than themselves and that was on display tonight.”