OKLAHOMA CITY — Just five minutes into a pivotal Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, the Golden State Warriors got what they wanted: an Andre Roberson 3-point attempt from the top of the circle.
The Warriors have left Roberson, a career 27-percent 3-pointer shooter, unattended beyond the arc virtually the entire series, daring him to beat them. And just like he’s done so many times in his young career, he defied the odds, and knocked down the first of his three 3-pointers on the night.
On Tuesday night, Roberson scored a career-high 17 points — to go along with 12 rebounds and five steals — in a 118-94 rout that gave the Thunder a 3-1 series lead on the defending champs.
Roberson, who declared for the NBA draft following a standout junior season at Colorado in 2013, is no stranger to overcoming the odds.
“To be honest, I was the underdog every time, growing up,” Roberson said after Tuesday’s Game 4 against the Warriors. “Nothing’s changed. I like being the underdog. So I go out there, play my game, I work hard, and it pays off.”
Roberson posted averages of 10.9 points and 11.2 rebounds at CU in 2013-13, earning a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and defensive player of the year honors. Despite that, his decision to leave school early was met with a fair amount of criticism and controversy, and he was expected by most “draft experts” to be a late second-round draft selection or go undrafted entirely.
Two months later, he was a first-round selection — 26th overall — and on his way to Oklahoma City.
Playing primarily as a small forward, and at times, an undersized power forward in college, the Thunder saw an opportunity for the 6-foot-7 Roberson to become a defensive force at shooting guard, and he made the transition quickly.
Roberson started 16 games as a rookie and then became entrenched in the starting lineup before the 2014-15 season. That season, he started 65 of the 67 games in which he played.
This season, he’s been a regular in the starting lineup and has made a name for himself around the league as one of the premier perimeter defenders.
“The thing that jumped out to me playing with him was his competitiveness and knack for finding the ball,” former CU teammate Xavier Talton said. “His competitive mentality has set him apart. With that mindset, it made him work to prove everyone who doubted him wrong. A lot of people thought he wouldn’t be drafted at all, and he went 26th. Just goes to show what hard work and faith in God can do for someone.”
There’s no question it’s paid off thus far.
Three years after leaving Boulder, with few people expecting him to last in the NBA, Roberson is a starter on a perennial playoff team and is coming off a career high in the biggest game of his life.
“Coming in, trusting in myself, and teammates trusting in me since day one,” Roberson said of the key to his journey. “I’ve stuck with it since day one, gotten better, and (Thunder general manager) Sam Presti always told me ‘Stick with the process, stick with the process,’ and that’s what I did and it’s paying off. So I’m going to continue to work hard and do whatever I can for my team.”
To see how far he’s come, look no further than his role in Oklahoma City’s current playoff series. Against arguably the league’s best backcourt, Roberson has been tasked with guarding the reigning two-time MVP, Steph Curry, and another of the league’s premier shooters, Klay Thompson.
While pouring in 17 points on offense on Tuesday, Roberson helped limit Curry to 6-for-20 shooting from the field, and just 2-for-10 from 3-point range.
“I go out there and I’ve got a job to do: defend the best player,” he said. “But when you’re scoring the ball, it makes it that much better. It gets everybody riled up, especially when everybody is clicking and on the right page. I have the utmost confidence. I know my teammates trust me, my coaches trust me; they tell me to shoot every time, so I go out there and let it fly.
“I’m a basketball player, man. To be honest, I can go out there and do it all, in my opinion. I’ve just gotta be put in those situations, and I feel like we’re doing a great job of utilizing everybody, and everybody’s skill set, and their ability to do what they do.”
Roberson’s next chance to do what he does will come on Thursday when the Thunder visit the Warriors for a potential series-clinching Game 5. If Oklahoma City can emerge with a victory, Roberson will find himself starting in the NBA Finals.