OKLAHOMA CITY -- With a towel wrapped tightly around his neck, Kevin Durant popped off the Oklahoma City Thunder bench, walking toward the table to check back in with eight minutes remaining in the fourth.
It was a different feeling for Durant, watching from the sideline as the Thunder extended a lead to open the fourth quarter. In the last month, it's been mostly the opposite, as Durant & Co. would re-enter for the final 10 minutes or so to try to make up lost ground. Three of the Thunder's last four losses featured early opposing runs to open the fourth as Durant and Russell Westbrook sat on the bench.
But in Tuesday's 131-123 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, led by rookie Cameron Payne and $70 million bench big Enes Kanter, the Thunder got the kind of second-unit production they've been desperate for.
"He saved us tonight," Durant said of Payne. "The second unit saved us tonight. The first unit didn't play so well and the second unit came through and played well for us."
The Thunder's bench contributed 53 points, with 16 coming from Payne in 16 minutes, and 23 in 22 minutes from Kanter, who also scored 10 straight points in the fourth quarter. On a night Durant shot just 6-of-18 from the floor, including 1-of-7 from 3-point range (he still had 26 points and eight assists, naturally), the Thunder were able to manufacture 131 points, a season-high in regulation.
It was largely because of the spark from Payne, who finally cracked the Thunder's rotation on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets, 31 games in. He was effective in a handful of minutes that night, but went to another level of impact on Tuesday.
"I thought putting him in there could give our second unit a little bit of a jolt," coach Billy Donovan said. "I would caution everybody, it's one game. And I know he played good last game, but he's going to have his ups and downs, too. I'm prepared to see him go through some of those struggles. He's a rookie and he's going to have experiences like that, but he did a great job tonight."
Donovan is correct in assessing that the second unit needed a jolt, but it's wrong to assume it was just Payne's energy that jump-started the bench. Sure, the rookie was enthusiastic about getting important minutes, but it was more about the change of style and the overall value he provided. Payne can attack downhill and has ability in the pick-and-roll, so not only did he pressure the Bucks with his own scoring, but he made the other four players on the floor with him more of a tangible threat. He got Kanter looks. He got Anthony Morrow (10 points, 3-of-5 from 3-point range) open shots. And of course, he created for himself.
"He's a point guard, a natural point guard, been that way his whole life," Durant said. "I could tell when I first saw him play. He's looking, his eyes are always moving up the court when he's in transition. He's not trying to score; he's looking for everybody else and that's good to have on our team."
The Thunder had the kind of look Tuesday they've enjoyed the last few years with Westbrook's backups really being only that in name. Before, it was Reggie Jackson slotting in to lead the second unit, and then easing in alongside Westbrook for critical minutes as well. It's obviously far too early to say Payne is going to do the same, but that was clearly the idea in selecting him with the 14th overall pick last season. D.J. Augustin is aging and is an unrestricted free agent next summer.
There have been raves about Payne's vision and feel coming from inside the Thunder's practice facility since training camp, but the rookie spent the first two months seasoning on the end of the bench, as well as making a couple trips down to the D-League. He got his chance on Tuesday and showed what he's capable of.
"Actually seen a lot better, to be honest with you," Steven Adams said of Payne. "Not trying to put expectations on him, but he's good, man. He can play."