DALLAS — After Cameron Payne’s midrange jumper with 9:25 remaining in the fourth quarter had given the Oklahoma City Thunder a 12-point lead and forced the Dallas Mavericks to burn a timeout, among the first individuals to emerge from the bench to meet the rookie was Thunder star Russell Westbrook.
Much to the delight of Payne, Westbrook met him with an emphatic chest bump as if to suggest the reserve point guard had provided the surging Thunder with the spark they desperately needed in extending their undefeated streak to seven games with a 109-106 win Friday night in Dallas’ American Airlines Center.
That Payne has continued what undoubtedly has been a favorable stretch for the native Memphian and former Lausanne Collegiate School star has exceedingly benefited not just him, but an OKC team that is currently third in the ever-so-tough Western Conference.
Just as he has done in recent weeks since Thunder first-year coach Billy Donavan installed Payne as a backup to the veteran Westbrook, the ex-Murray State star appeared rather dauntless, thus demonstrated resiliency during arguably a pivotal stretch in Friday’s game.
Six of his eight points (on 4 of 10 field goals) came after a lethargic first-half in which the Thunder shot an unsatisfactory 45 percent from the field and trailed, 56-48, at intermission.
While in the locker room, Payne admittedly thought it necessary to reflect on why Donovan felt compelled to increase his role on a veteran team that is a legitimate threat to come out of the West.
“I just took what the defense gave me,” Payne told MemphiSport following Friday’s game. “I knew going into halftime, I said I need to be more aggressive. And my teammates made it easier for me to get good looks. I just came out more aggressive and, like I said, the defense got us running, got us in the flow of the game. They picked up the pace. Our second unit picked up the pace and then we got easy baskets.”
Westbrook, as it turned out, wasn’t the only All-Star on the roster who was pleased with Payne’s latest outing.
Eight-year veteran Kevin Durant was also brought to smiles when asked to assess the OKC prized rookie’s performance.
“They were huge,” Durant said of Payne’s contributions that essentially helped OKC ease out to the final margin. “They were huge. He was aggressive all night. They trapped him out there at half court. And I told him to take that as a compliment when teams start to trap you because that means you’re doing something well. He’s playing well. He’s playing with a lot of confidence and we’re going to need that from him going down the line.”
During his pregame availability session with reporters, Donovan wasted little time praising the continuous stellar play of Payne, who was taken 14th overall by the Thunder in last year’s draft after two remarkable seasons at Murray State.
“I thought it’ll be a good opportunity to see what he can do and he’s really done a good job,” said Donovan, explaining why he named Payne the backup floor facilitator to Westbrook. A lot has been said about our second unit. We’re trying to get a more cohesive unit that plays better together. Cameron has given us a really nice boost coming off the bench.”
As the season progresses, Payne acknowledged his primary objective will remain the same.
That is, he’s destined to learn all he can while he can as he continues to steadfastly heed the advice of Westbrook, one of the league’s premiere point guards.
“He came out on the court and gave me a chest bump,” said Payne, recalling the sequence that took place after he scored his final basket Friday. “You know, that means a lot to me to see Russ do that. I really appreciate stuff like that.”
Given his dazzling play through 29 appearances, it’s safe to assume the Thunder admire the stuff he’s brought to the team in this, his first professional season.
Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.