MEMPHIS — I’ve got good news and bad news from Memphis. Which one do you want first?
Let’s start with the bad.
The Thunder lost 99-91 to the Grizzlies on Wednesday night the same way it dropped a good majority of its games last season — late-game turnovers, poor decision-making, porous defense and deer-in-the-headlights looks from players on offense down the stretch.
The good news is this was Game 1 of the preseason, and this time the unit that fell prey to the same mistakes we saw so many nights last season won’t all be on the floor when the games matter three weeks from tonight.
The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 19-9 in the final 7 1/2 minutes. OKC had as many turnovers (four) as field goals in those final minutes. Memphis rookie Sam Young took over like he was still a man among boys at Pitt, scoring 15 of his game-high 22 points in the final period. He attempted 16 free throws, 10 in the fourth quarter.
But the result is secondary since two rookies (Byron Mullens and James Harden), two sophomores (Kyle Weaver and D.J. White) and three role players (Shaun Livingston, Etan Thomas and Ryan Bowen) were the only ones that played the fourth quarter.
The main guys looked good.
Russell Westbrook orchestrated the offense almost perfectly. He finished with a game-high 10 assists and could have had more had his buddies made more shots. Westbrook didn’t force anything all game and, as a result, turned the ball over only twice. And one was an illegal screen. Because he looked for his teammates all night, he only took four shots, missing them all and scoring just five points. But his development was on display. His leadership, too. He jumped off the bench in the first half after the Grizzlies had two consecutive run outs and yelled, “Somebody’s gotta get back!” In addition to that, he helped hold Mike Conley in check and didn’t let the speedy point guard cause problems by weaving his way into the lane all night. Westbrook’s overall performance was hands down the most encouraging thing about the opener. He’s answering the question of whether he’s ready to lead this team each time he steps on the floor in a competitive environment. It’s way too early to declare that he is. But the better question might soon become is he ready to be consistent as the leader?
Because of Westbrook’s dominating floor game, Kevin Durant wasn’t able to show how much better his playmaking skills have become. Durant scored a game-high 17 points but netted zero assists. The assists Durant couldn’t control since Westbrook was the facilitator. But what KD could control was his rebounding, and that was a disappointing aspect of his performance tonight. He finished with only three boards in 26 minutes. Those are two areas, rebounding and playmaking, that Durant needs to be better at this season. An encouraging sign was that he didn’t settle for jumpers. He took only two 3-pointers and both were in the flow of the offense. Instead, KD faced up Rudy Gay and barreled his way to the bucket. On one possession early in the first quarter, Durant squared up, jabbed right and drove baseline to finish with a two-handed dunk. About a minute later he used his penetration to make a play. Westbrook swung the ball to Jeff Green, Green swung it to Durant in the right corner and Durant again took Gay off the dribble. He knifed his way into the lane before the defense collapsed and he kicked it to Westbrook at the top of the key. Westbrook then swung it to James Harden in the left corner for a 3.
Can’t knock Durant too much on his rebounding, though. It seems the entire team took this one off. No Thunder player had more than D.J. White’s five rebounds. The Grizzlies out-rebounded the Thunder 40-30, and coach Scott Brooks said rebounding will now become a focal point from here on. I tend to think the Thunder might deserve a little bit of a break in this one because it played without Nick Collison and against some tall and talented rebounders in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Hasheem Thabeet. All of them, and rookie DeMarre Carroll, finished with seven each. The more alarming stat is Etan Thomas finished with only one board in 18 minutes.
D.J. White was a close second in terms of player of the night for the Thunder. While everyone else in the crunch-time unit looked lost, scared or clueless offensively, White called for the ball and scored in bunches. He scored 10 of the Thunder’s 17 points in the final quarter en route to his 16-point, five-rebound night. He mainly hit jumpers and running hooks. “I still feel I’m a long ways away,” White said. “This is the first preseason game. I knocked down shots. But at the same time, as a team, it’s some things we need to work on. It’s some things I need to work on. Defensive rotations, being in the right spots when we run plays and things like that. So it’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Jeff Green couldn’t find his rhythm tonight offensively. He made just 3 of 10 shots and scored six points. But the good thing was he got great looks against the bigger, slower Randolph. That could be a theme throughout this season. Unfortunately, there’s another end of the floor, and Green at times struggled to keep Randolph off the glass. That could also be a theme this year.
Shaun Livingston looked great up until the fourth quarter when the Grizzlies played with more pressure and turned the game around. Livingston had three of his four turnovers in the final period and took the blame for the blunders afterward. But you could see how he’ll help the team this season and, yes, his knee is good enough to make an impact. He proved it with 4:34 left in the third when he slashed down the middle of the lane, took a pass from Westbrook and threw down a one-handed dunk. He later said, half-jokingly, that he’s waiting to get a windmill jam in. As for the knee: “It’s just fatigue more than anything,” he said. “Toward the end I started to get tired. But that’s part of building balance and strength.”
Nenad Krstic played only 14 minutes but knocked almost every look he got (5-for-7).
James Harden got 29 minutes and finished with 12, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and two steals. He didn’t look great in doing it and didn’t look bad. You just look up and he’s contributed across the board. It’s what I think you can expect to see out of the No. 3 overall pick all season.
Ryan Bowen, if he makes the team, will instantly become a fan favorite because of his all-out hustle. He even sprained a finger tonight. Bowen played 21 minutes, and I expect Michael Ruffin to get those kind of minutes Saturday in New Orleans. It should come down to one of those two (maybe throw Mike Harris in there) for the 15th spot. Ruffin’s got his work cut out for him.
Byron Mullens and Serge Ibaka both showed flashes of scoring ability (shooting touch), rebounding and athleticism. They could both get more of an opportunity against the Hornets.
Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Ollie didn’t play. I expect Sefolosha to rejoin the lineup Saturday, possibly as the starter. Collison, I’m not so sure. He’s doing some shooting but still is hobbled.
Overall, the Thunder gave a good first effort.