Don’t think this game didn’t matter. Not for a second.
If for some reason you’re still under the impression that Thursday night’s 104-89 loss to the starless Kings was simply a throw-away game, the last of this exhibition season, carefully chew on Kevin Durant’s words.
“It always means something when we step on this floor,” he said. “We’re a young team. We want to get better every time we step on the floor. Tonight was a tough one. We took some steps back.”
This was the third straight loss by at least 15 points. The third straight time a team has drained at least 10 3-pointers. The third straight game the wanna-be-defensive-minded Thunder allowed 104 points or more. The third straight game in which the opponent has shot better than 50 percent from the field.
In no way is it time to panic. It’s certainly way too early for that. But while the outcome doesn’t matter in these tune-ups, the performances and the trends certainly serve as warning signs.
After seven preseason games, the Thunder has demonstrated an inability to put together 48 minutes of quality basketball. It’s the same flaw that plagued this bunch last season. Some of this preseason’s blunders can be attributed to odd lineups and funky rotations, to subs closing out games and philosophy taking precedence over the outcome. But mostly, the Thunder showed the same imperfections during times its main unit was on the floor and times when the team tried to successfully close out a game with a win.
Have we forgotten Phoenix’s 26-9 fourth quarter on Oct. 12 that erased a 20-point lead before the Thunder prevailed by five in overtime? Lose that game and this exhibition season goes from 2-5 to 1-6, from decent to disappointing.
“It’s definitely a concern in our minds because we want to change it,” said Shaun Livingston. “That’s not how we want to come out and start the season. I know that we are going to come out better opening night. We know we are better than that.”
These seven games carry so much significance because young teams are incapable of snapping out of a funk overnight. The same problems that we saw this preseason — namely the porous defense — isn’t likely to disappear when the ball is thrown up on opening night.
The Thunder has five days to figure out a solution.
“We’re one of the hardest working groups I’ve been around. We’re not concerned at all,” Durant insisted. “We can’t go into practice thinking about this game. We got to let this game go and these last couple of games go and get ready for Sacramento again on Wednesday. We’re looking forward to practice and these games coming up.”
- For the second straight game, Thunder coach Scott Brooks played Kevin Ollie the bulk of the minutes as the backup point guard. When I asked Brooks about it after the game he said the spot is “open.” Ollie didn’t have one of his better games. He scored four points with no assists, two fouls and two turnovers in 22 minutes. His four free throws inside the final four minutes broke a 16-0 run and served as the only points the Thunder scored over the final nine minutes of the third quarter. I’ll have more on this potential position battle in Saturday’s paper.
- Nick Collison played just seven minutes as he continues to be eased into the rotation while recovering from a sprained left ankle. He said he’s still not 100 percent but is hoping the five days before the season opener helps his ankle heal.
- Serge Ibaka was back to his normal self tonight and was one of the only positive that you could really take away from this game. Brooks praised his energy and effort in the fourth quarter. His poster dunk over Andres Nocioni with 10:01 in the fourth was about the only thing a Thunder fan could have cheered for tonight. Ibaka finished with nine points and seven boards in 22 minutes. My question is how many more brave (or silly) souls like Nocioni will it take before word spreads throughout the league about Ibaka’s athleticism and defenders know better than to jump?
- Etan Thomas perhaps turned in the lone other promising performance. He closed out the preseason with 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. His rebounding had been sub par to say the least. And it’s nice to see him come up with two rejections.
- I thought James Harden again looked better while playing with the reserves than he has when on the floor with the starters. He scored six of his 14 points in a two-minute span in the second quarter while playing alongside Ollie, Livingston, Collison and Thomas.
- Russell Westbrook had his first bad performance. He had a not-so great one and five other really, really good ones. The problem tonight was he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble. He had five fouls and two points on 1-for-6 shooting in 14 minutes. He had just two rebounds, two assists and turned the ball over twice. I guess the good news is even in a bad game he still contributes across the board. The bad news is he struggled against Tyreke Evans’ length and strength. Evans blocked two of his shots, the first of which Westbrook recovered and made a heads-up play when he quickly shot it up and scored to beat the shot clock.
- Thabo Sefolosha missed all three of his 3-point attempts tonight. And it seems like the erratic shooting he displayed this preseason might be his story throughout the regular season. But his shot has looked much improved at times.
- I told Desmond Mason before the game that he absolutely must see the new locker room before he left. I caught his reaction when he walked in as the media was interviewing Livingston. “Whoooa,” he said, his mouth wide open and his eyes taking it all in like a kid in a candy store. Everyone who saw the Thunder’s old locker room and has walked into the new one has had the same reaction.
- Sacramento coach Paul Westphal said, “I wish that we didn’t have to play this team before we play them here next week. Both teams I am sure held a few wrinkles back.”
- I expect one of the remaining training camp guys to be released soon, possibly Friday. I tried to get a feel for which one by examining everything from Ryan Bowen and Mike Harris’ facial expressions after the game to how much stuff was in their lockers to which one was the last to leave the dressing room (Harris). Unfortunately, none of it yielded much. We’ll find out soon.