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FiveThirtyEight

In the third quarter of Oklahoma City’s Thursday night win over Los Angeles, Thunder coach Scott Brooks, long maligned for doing the same old thing, discovered something new: a lineup of Nick Collison, Steven Adams, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson could bend the court to its will.

The group had rarely played together before — just six minutes during the regular season and just seven minutes in the playoffs. But that didn’t seem to be a problem. Over the next 15 minutes of play Thursday night, they scored 42 points and allowed just 24 points on 41 percent shooting, turning a 7-point deficit into an 11-point lead. Extrapolated to a 100-possession pace, the lineup’s point differential was +64.3.

Small sample size, of course, but whoa, what a sample. The Thunder’s most-played lineup in the regular season (with Jackson in place of an injured Westbrook) had a per-100-possession point differential of +5.8. If we look at just the Thunder’s most frequently used front-court pairing, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, we find a per-100-possession point differential of just +2.0.

Something about the fresh lineup on Thursday spaced the floor for Durant to do his best work of the night, scoring 13 points on just six shots. Neither Collison nor Adams is a particularly dangerous offensive player, but they are both good offensive rebounders. When they were on the floor together for 494 minutes in the regular season, the Thunder rebounded 33.4 percent of their own misses, compared to 26.5 across the whole season. Collison and Adams can also set screens and roll hard to the basket, allowing the Thunder to spread the defense even without a great perimeter-shooting big guy on the floor.

Durant has played just a small percentage of his minutes with a Collison-Adams front-court pairing this season, but he’s been remarkably effective when he does, netting his highest true shooting percentage.

Front Court Combinations Playing With Durant

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It’s hard to suss out whether playing this group together  was a shrewd and intentional move by Brooks, or whether he stumbled upon the lineup after Ibaka’s calf injury. But it’s an important development as the Thunder get ready for the San Antonio Spurs. Going into Thursday night’s game, seven of the Thunder’s 10 most-used lineups in the playoffs had a positive point differential. With the emphatic arrival of this group, it’s now eight of 10.

Lineups matter especially for the Thunder, a team whose starting five tend to start slowly. That group finished the series with a negative first-quarter point differential and was outscored to begin four of the six games in the series. Inserting Collison and Adams into the starting lineup is probably not the solution to those slow starts, but the Spurs are waiting with a deep and versatile matchup nightmare. Every opportunity Brooks has to experiment with a seldom-used but potentially explosive lineup gives him more options to handle the varied scenarios the Spurs will throw at the Thunder.

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