Last night was the real reason why we cheer for sports. We love watching athletes do things we can only imagine and dream of doing. But we truly relish when an athlete, who may not be as naturally talented as his superstar counterparts, finally gets his opportunity to perform after putting in work in hours and hours of practice. Now don’t get me wrong, every athlete works hard to get where they are at. Kevin Durant puts in just as much time in the gym as Daniel Orton. But we, as fans, probably relate more to Daniel Orton, than to Kevin Durant.
Which is what made last night’s game so special for us fans. Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks constantly preaches about “the next man up.” But with the Iron Man lineup that we have, that saying barely has a chance to be put into practice. When the television broadcast for the game started, it was already a given that Serge Ibaka was going to be out with a bruised sternum. What wasn’t known until basically tipoff, was that Thabo Sefolosha would also be out with a strained neck (hotel pillows suck!). So the quick question was who would be inserted into the starting line-up at shooting guard? Would it be Kevin Martin? Would Jeremy Lamb finally be unleashed?
The blueprint to who would start was put into play last season. When Sefolosha missed 23 games due to a leg injury, Brooks started by inserting James Harden into the starting lineup. Harden, who had been the Thunder’s 6th man for 3 seasons, struggled in his role as a starter. At the same time, the Thunder’s bench struggled to score points. Brooks adjusted the next game by inserting Daequan Cook into the starting lineup and keeping Harden on the bench. The transition became a lot smoother after that until Sefolosha returned. With Kevin Martin being the Thunder’s 6th man this season and Brooks not wanting to mess with the team’s rotation too much, DeAndre Liggins got the start.
Liggins was a 2nd round pick of the Orlando Magic in the 2011 draft. After playing in 17 games his rookie season, Liggins was released by the Magic in an attempt to clear cap space and a roster spot for the eventual post-Dwight Howard rebuild. (Why Orlando would get rid of a cheap capable wing defender is beyond me.) Liggins was signed by the Thunder as a training camp invite to try out for the final 2 roster spots on the team. The team had 13 guaranteed contracts, and brought in a couple other players as training camp invites to battle for the remaining roster spots. In 5 preseason games (including 2 starts), Liggins averaged 20.8 minutes, 4.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.4 blocks per game. Based on his preseason performances and his propensity for energy and defense, Liggins willed his way onto the team as the final cut.
As a 2nd year player, Liggins was eligible to be assigned to the Thunder’s D-League affifiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, throughout the season. As I’ve written before, the Thunder take full advantage of their D-League usage. Liggins was sent down for a 3 game stint at the end of November and another 3 game stint at the end of December. In 6 games with the 66ers, Liggins has been the jack of all trades, averaging 10.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Since his last D-League game on December 29th, Liggins has been logging regular minutes off the bench for the Thunder.
Liggins took full advantage of his first career start. He played nearly 40 minutes and almost had a double double with 11 points and 9 rebounds. He played suffocating defense on Wesley Matthews and made life miserable for anyone that was around him when he was on the defensive end. Most importantly, he played the entire 4th quarter in a close game without looking nervous at all. In other words, he played like he belonged.
Liggins is just another example of what hard work and perseverance can do for an individual. These are the type of players that the organization is looking for. These are the types of players that relate to us, the fans. Thabo could start tonight against the Phoenix Suns and may not miss another game for the entire season. But for this one game, the Thunder mantra of, “next man up” held firm and true with DeAndre Liggins.