The Oklahoma City Thunder (3-1) wrapped up preseason play tonight in Denver, defeating the Nuggets by a score of 96-86. Oklahoma City used a quick start to lead by as many as 21, but saw the margin trimmed to a single point late in the contest. In the end, the Thunder rode physical defense and some big fourth quarter buckets from Paul George to put it on ice.
With four preseason games under the belt of this new look Thunder squad, the team will return home to Oklahoma City and await the New York Knicks just nine days from now for the season opener. There’s still much to iron out before then and beyond, but there were encouraging signs of growth tonight in the Mile High City. Let’s dive into some thoughts/notes.
Russell Westbrook set the tone
Russell Westbrook came out hot in the first quarter, and it set the tone from the outset. He played angry, pushed the tempo, and flashed attitude with an early (about 90 seconds in, no less) Flagrant 1 on Nikola Jokic:
He finished the first quarter with 14 points and 2 assists on 6/8 shooting, and his aggressive play super-charged a Thunder offense that lacked a similar punch earlier in preseason play. Oklahoma City led by eight after the opening frame, with Russ providing the spark behind an 18-3 run that opened things up entirely.
All told, Westbrook pitched in 20 points and 7 assists in 26 minutes, and routinely found open teammates that were in position on the catch far more frequently than they were even two days ago. It’s apparent this Thunder team will go as its point guard goes, and he will need to set the pace on a regular basis for this squad to play to its fullest potential early on. When he’s putting pressure on the opposing defense — particularly in transition — the ball easily finds its way into the hands of willing and capable shooters.
It won’t always look as effortless as it did tonight in Denver, but we saw flashes of the blueprint against the Nuggets. Westbrook being Westbrook is the key during this acclimation period, and it’s something he should be capable of on a regular basis.
First half Westbrook highlights (18 points) via NBA:
Melo & PG Watch
Carmelo Anthony looked very comfortable tonight in Denver, finishing with 16 points and 9 rebounds on 7/17 shooting. He benefited most from sharing the court with Westbrook, as Russ had no trouble finding the 10-time All-Star in position to score. He routinely bullied his defender in the post, and had several strong finishes down low. He also connected from long-distance by doing nothing but trailing the play and allowing Westbrook to open the floor with his speed — pretty much exactly what you dream of for Melo in this Thunder offense.
On the flip side, Paul George struggled early on against the Nuggets and appeared fatigued after logging heavy minutes in back-to-back contests. His shots drew the front end of the rim on several occasions, and he didn’t have great lift on his jumpers. But as we’ve seen throughout the preseason, he got it going as the game progressed — particularly as the lone superstar on the floor in Billy Donovan’s staggered lineups. He wrapped up the night with 19 points and 11 rebounds, hitting 7/19 from the floor and 5/9 from downtown — four of which came in the fourth quarter while playing alongside reserves.
While the two men each showed encouraging signs on offense, both played solid defense and contributed to the physical tone established in the first half. George had five steals and used several to jump start the break, while Melo was surprisingly matched-up with Paul Millsap and held his own against the four-time All-Star. The Thunder will bank on George being this sort of defender every time out, but Melo buying in and doing his part would go a long way in making the season a success. Encouraging cap to preseason play for the newbies.
Full Westbrook, PG, Melo highlights:
The Point Guards
With Raymond Felton out with a sprained wrist, it was expected that either Semaj Christon or Isaiah Canaan would fill-in as the backup when Russell Westbrook was off the floor. In true Billy Donovan fashion, it was rookie Daniel Hamilton running the point instead.
Hamilton finished the night with 4 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in nearly 15 minutes of play. Canaan logged about 4 minutes, Christon drew a DNP, and there’s no clarity whatsoever in terms of who will ultimately man the third string point guard position on opening night. It’s possible the Thunder simply enters the regular season with 14 men on the roster — while utilizing Hamilton’s two-way contract — but it’s Billy Donovan. Who really knows?
We’ve been doing this for several years now, but it finally feels like the right time. Josh Huestis capped a solid slate of preseason games with 15 points and 9 rebounds against the Nuggets — knocking down 4/9 from distance in 22 minutes of action. He looked great playing alongside Paul George at the power forward position, and showed good decision making in taking the shot or passing out depending on what the defense made available.
Whether or not he gets much regular season run is yet to be seen, but the coaching staff can’t ask for much more from the 25-year-old. He plays hard-nosed defense, has developed his shot into a true 3-and-D weapon, and played/guarded multiple positions tonight in Denver. He’s going to catch on somewhere eventually, and the hope of many fans is that it’s in Oklahoma City.
- Alex Abrines returned from injury to log 13 minutes, scoring 5 points on 2/2 shooting. Not a lot of run, but his lone three-point attempt was all net. The spacing he provides when on the floor with the Thunder’s new weaponry is going to be glorious all season long.
- Steven Adams didn’t have the stat line that he enjoyed on Sunday against Melbourne United, but was more involved in the offense from the outset. The ball was fed into the post on the third possession of the game, and built from there. He showed nice chemistry with Russell Westbrook, and finished his night with 8 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks — good for a +17 on the evening. He even pulled up from mid-range on one instance, and although he missed….it looked pretty good.
- Jerami Grant took a charge for the second consecutive game. Someone has been spending time with Nick Collison.
- Nikola Jokic finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds for Denver, but was a -12 for the night. He looked out of rhythm from the jump, due in large part to the Thunder’s physicality with him.
- Westbrook and Melo sat the entire fourth quarter, while PG13 again ran with the reserves in the final frame. They finished with 26, 22 and 34 minutes, respectively.
- The Thunder only shot eight free throws on the evening, making three of them. That’s good for 37.5 percent and will lose you a bunch of ball games.
- OKC was 15/38 from downtown (39.5 percent), and the dramatic difference in three-point shooting between this season and last will be fun to watch.
- Highlight of the night: Paul George turns defense into offense and finds Jerami Grant for the lob in transition.