Liggins Surprised To Crack Thunder’s Rotation
NBA teams are allowed a maximum of 15 players on their roster; coaches generally use an eight-to-ten-man rotation, so what about those remaining players who rarely, if ever, get meaningful playing time during the course of a season? It typically spells garbage minutes, D-League experience and a whole bunch of team practicing, just waiting for that moment in the sun.
“Once Russell [Westbrook] went down, I knew somebody else would step up during rotations,” Liggins told HOOPSWORLD. “I didn’t know who coach [Scott Brooks] was going to choose. He didn’t say [anything] to me.”
And so it goes for Liggins, who has averaged over 16 minutes of playing time in Games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference first round versus the Houston Rockets. Compare that to 7.4 average minutes in 39 games this season. It bears pointing out: many of those 7.4 minutes came in games where the outcome had been decided.
“I was just ready; my job is to just stay ready,” Liggins said. “You never know when your name is called.”
It’s obvious the Thunder is struggling mightily in the absence of Westbrook, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2. This franchise had literally never played a game without Westbrook since he was drafted in 2008. Now, right smack in the middle of the NBA playoffs, the Thunder’s All-Star starting point guard is gone, leaving them precious little time to figure out how to play without him.
When thinking about their dilemma logically, one would surmise Kevin Durant will continue playing at his impressively-high level and the rest of the regulars will step it up. Without Westbrook, Durant hasn’t disappointed. However, his zero points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 suggests some wear and tear building already. He’s doing it all. New starting point guard Reggie Jackson has stepped into his new role admirably averaging 17.3 points, 2.0 three-pointers and .452 in field goal percentage in the past three games, but that’s about the extent. Others, such as Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin, have not yet answered the call as expected.
Brooks is trying to find new combinations that work against the Rockets, and the energetic Liggins has been one noted recipient of his recent efforts.
“I like what he gives us,” Brooks said. “He gives us a little bit of a balance. [He’s] a guy that can make a shot from the three and a guy that defends. We have some other options, but I like his balance and I think he’s done really good.”
“I’m balanced,” Liggins agreed. “I just don’t want to be a one-dimensional player. I can defend, knock down shots, make plays, rebound at my position. As long as I continue trying to do these things, I’ll try to help this team as much as I can.”
In Game 4, Liggins was a surprise substitute in the first quarter. He started in the second and fourth quarters, plus logged time in the third quarter, for a total of 14:09 minutes on the floor. The guard recorded three points (a three-point shot, no less), five rebounds and one steal.
This would be a good time to address the Thunder’s third quarter woes. Over the past three games, Houston has outscored Oklahoma City 102-70 in the third quarter. The team is searching for answers as to why they keep losing the battle in this particular quarter.
“I wish we knew,” Durant said with his head lowered. “They’ve been coming out hot, so we’ve got to do a better job.”
Such a simple, straight-forward answer from Durant. The truth is this: they’ve always relied on Westbrook to bring fire and aggressiveness to the start of every quarter. It’s just in his DNA, and the Thunder miss it.
“We had trouble the last few games,” Brooks admitted. “We have to make sure that we come out and not turn the ball over. The turnovers, the opportunities that give them easy shots affected us. It gave them a 38-point quarter [in Game 4]. It also gave them confidence. They were pushing up on us and taking us out of our offense. In the fourth quarter, we started playing a little more aggressive and physical on both ends, and I thought that kind of neutralized the way they were playing.
“We have to start off the game and the half that way.”
Liggins offered unexpected levity to his answer when asked to explain the Thunder’s third quarter challenges.
“[The] third quarter is when everybody goes and gets popcorn,” Liggins said. “In the third, everybody comes back to their seats, so we think we’ve got to play when everybody goes back to their seats.”
Liggins’ easy-going manner is refreshing. It’s plain to see why he fits so well in this famously close locker room. Then, he turned serious.
“We’ve got to start off at the beginning of the third and try to punch them in the mouth,” Liggins said.
In Game 5, Liggins appeared in the first and third quarters and started in the fourth, tallying over 18 minutes in the game. He had two points, two rebounds, one block and one steal.
His box score numbers weren’t anything to especially cheer about. However, it appears the considerable time spent playing in the NBA D-League this year served him well. In 19 games with the Tulsa 66ers, Liggins averaged 11.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals.
“He’s an aggressive defender,” said Brooks. “He’s been like that every day in practice. Maybe there’s opportunities that he didn’t receive this year, but he came in there and did some good things for us.”
The 6’6 three-year Kentucky product with a 6’11 wingspan was picked 53rd in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic. After seeing minimal playing time there, he signed with the Thunder as a free agent last September. He earned high pre-draft marks from Kentucky coach John Calipari, who praises his unbelievable effort and team mindset.
Liggins, 25, says his game most resembles teammate Thabo Sefolosha’s skill set, the Thunder’s defensive specialist, who has taken him under his wing.
“We play a lot alike,” Liggins noted. “[He’s] a shooter, a defensive player. He always talks to me about defensive rotations, communication, small details.”
What does Liggins’ future look like with the Thunder? By a twist of fate, he’s getting a chance to show what he can do on the league’s biggest stage.