MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- When Jeremy Lamb comes off the bench, the Oklahoma City Thunder can expect good things to happen.
A most recent example came against the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum on Tuesday, when Lamb entered the game late in the first quarter, the Thunder down by seven. He ended up playing 29 minutes, scoring nine points, getting seven rebounds and, though Oklahoma City lost by three, the team was 12 points better when Lamb was in the game.
On Friday night, Lamb played 26 minutes, scoring 12 points, as teammate Kevin Durant scored a career-high 54 points to lead the Thunder to a 127-121 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
"He's getting some good opportunities," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Lamb. "But they're earned. We're not just giving him minutes because he has good potential. He's earning the minutes. He works hard, he's here early, stays late. He gives us another offensive weapon, and we like also that he gives us a two-way weapon. He wants to improve on the defensive end and he has this year. We really rely on him being able to do both, defend and score when given an opportunity."
Lamb, still just 21 and a year and half removed from his sophomore season at UConn, has worked his way into the fabric of one of the NBA's best teams, a team built around superstar Kevin Durant, the league's top scorer who averages 30.0 points. This was what the Thunder had in mind when they send James Harden to Houston in a blockbuster trade on the eve of the 2012-13 season.
The Rockets took Lamb with the No. 12 pick in the NBA draft but wanted veteran help. Oklahoma City, looking for young players, didn't have a spot for Lamb and kept him in the D League much of the season. He got into 23 games with the Thunder, averaging 6.4 minutes, 3.1 points.
"Teammates encouraging me is what got me through it," said Lamb, who remains laconic in interviews, belying the intensity his teammates rave about. "I was just going to work hard, do whatever I could to get on the floor. ... I'm better at just being consistent, not just in a game, but off the court -- taking care of my body, working out, things like that."
Lamb put in a strong summer and the Thunder traded away Kevin Martin. The spot was there for him to grasp. He's averaging 21.7 minutes, providing a nightly spark off the bench with 10 points and 2.7 rebounds.
"It's always an adjustment for young players in this league," Brooks said. "Most are coming from programs where they're the main guy. And he was coming to a very good team, we won 60 games last year. He didn't get a lot of opportunities. But as a young player, we say this all the time: You can get better from it or you can get bitter from it. He chose the route that we gave him, and we told him, 'look, you're going to get better from this, you're going to keep working hard and keep improving and when you get an opportunity you're going to be ready, and he's done a good job of that."
Lamb scored 16 in the second game of the season, hitting 7 of 15 shots in a 100-81 win over the T'Wolves, and soon double-digit scoring and 20-plus minutes became the norm, as did effective defense. Lamb, at 6 feet 5 with a long wingspan, can bring something even on nights when his shots are not falling.
"Defense is a huge part of the game," Lamb said. "This team prides itself on defense, so I definitely had to get better on defense to get on the floor."
When Lamb met up with the Rockets on Dec. 29, he showed a glimpse of why they had drafted him, scoring 22 points, hitting 8 of 10 from the floor. "He's got great length, got a great stroke and he's a young kid," Houston coach Kevin McHale told reporters after that game, "so he's only going to get better."
At UConn, Lamb worked himself gradually into the mix. By the end of his freshman season he had become a perfect complementary scorer to Kemba Walker and was a key to the Huskies' championship run.
As a sophomore, Lamb, a preseason All-American, often had trouble finding his shot but still averaged 17.7 points and there was little disagreement when he chose to enter the draft. Durant called Lamb "smooth operator."
"He can do it all," Durant told the Daily Oklahoman early this season. "He's athletic. He can shoot. He can dribble. But I like his intensity. I like his focus and his hard work. With all that, anything can be done on the court by him."
Lamb had a setback early in January when he missed 11 of 12 shots in a game against Denver. He bounced right back, scoring 17 points, 12 in the second half, in a win at Milwaukee a few nights later. The Thunder (28-10) are keeping pace with San Antonio and Portland in the brisk Western Conference.
"This team doesn't like to lose," Lamb said. "That's about it. ... There are a lot of ups and downs in this league, you have to learn how to put it behind you."
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