So what did we learn about this year’s Thunder squad after one game?
If Wednesday night’s season opener taught us anything it was that this team can be pretty good when it plays hard for 48 minutes. The 102-89 win over Sacramento proved that the things the organization has preached since moving here in July of last year — teamwork, energy, effort, commitment and patience — can indeed pay off.
“It was a good start,” said coach Scott Brooks. “I thought we played some pretty good basketball.”
The Thunder has become a more confident group. That was perhaps the biggest revelation on opening night. You can see the progression in almost everything the players do, everything they say.
Kevin Durant was spotted at his locker before the game, slouched in his office-style chair with his long legs stretched out. He seemed calm, prepared for anything that was about to come his way. Less than an hour before tip-off, he looked every bit as at ease as he claimed to be only a day earlier, on the eve of his third NBA season.
And after the wire-to-wire win, the Thunder’s dressing room was far from festive. Players hardly flashed smiles, let alone celebrated the opening victory. Media members filled the room with more noise than the guys who had just put on the show. It was almost a surreal scene considering it was one that rarely played out after big-time wins last year.
“It’s an encouraging start,” said Nick Collison, “but there’s 81 more games.”
- Nick Collison said he still isn’t 100 percent. He doesn’t think he has all of his athleticism back but thinks he can still help the team. Collison admitted he was hesitant in his 15 minutes and will just have to get used to playing through soreness while he attempts to regain his rhythm.
- Russell Westbrook’s passing (career-high 13 assists) and patience (two turnovers) might have stood out most to you. It’s really no surprise if you saw him in summer league and the preseason. What caught my eye was his smooth, controlled jump shot. He made seven of 12 shots and coolly drilled a handful off ball screens at the top of the key. If he hits that shot consistently he’ll be dangerous this year. Teams will have to start respecting his jumper and pressing up. Then he can really use his quickness to blow by for attacks on the rim.
- Kevin Durant was an all-around leader tonight. One play summed up his maturity. The first-quarter clock was winding down and the Durant was setting up a play from above the 3-point arc. Brooks was directing Collison on when to go and set a screen, but Durant waived off both Brooks and Collison and called his own number. He took two dribbles, threw a bounce pass to Kevin Ollie and Ollie only needed a dribble or two before getting a wide open layup with 6.6 seconds remaining. We might be in store for more of that in addition to his nightly scoring output.
- Welcome to the NBA, James Harden. Go guard Kevin Martin…That very well could have been Brooks’ pre-game message to the No. 3 overall pick who had no answer for Martin after checking in with 1:59 remaining in the first. Martin drew a foul on Harden on the rookie’s second defensive possession. Two possessions later, Martin again baited Harden. And a little more than two minutes into the second quarter, Harden had trouble fighting through a screen and recovered too late to contest Martin’s shot. When Harden got there, he bit on an up and under and it resulted in Collison picking up the foul. Brooks had no choice but to pull Harden, and all his teammates could do was pat him on the head and encourage him to stick with it. Later, when Harden returned, Westbrook was assigned the task of defending Martin. Harden switched over to rookie Tyreke Evans.
- Brooks wasn’t kidding when he said the backup point guard spot was a close battle. He surprisingly gave the reserve minutes to Kevin Ollie. Shaun Livingston didn’t play. We’ll find out the why soon, but Ollie didn’t do any harm in his 13 minutes of action (two points, one turnover). Ollie and Thomas were the first two off the bench, checking in with 3:38 left in the first quarter.
- Jeff Green destroyed Andres Nocioni, Sean May and Spencer Hawes. When their help was needed in the paint, he camped out at the 3-point line, where he made four of five. When they came out to guard him, he faced up and attacked the rim.
- Kyle Weaver, Ryan Bowen and Byron Mullens were on the inactive list. Serge Ibaka and D.J. White dressed but did not play.
- The Thunder had nine assists and just one turnover in the first quarter. But the best display of ball movement came in the first half of the third quarter. The Thunder turned a 17-point halftime lead into a 23-point advantage with 7:39 remaining by notching assists on the first five baskets of the quarter. Four different players scored during the stretch.
THEY SAID IT
- James Harden on his debut: “It was good. It was a little shaky in the beginning. I was kind of nervous. But once the ball got inbounded the relief came along and I just started to play basketball.”
- Harden on guarding Martin: “I learned a lot. He’s very crafty. He knows how to get to the foul line and I can use some of the things he does and incorporate it into my game. I picked up two quick fouls. I don’t know if it was whether I was being anxious or excited to be on the court. But I just tried to learn. That’s the most important thing.”
- Jeff Green on the bench: “We got a lot of depth on this team, a lot of guys that can come in and contribute. Every good team has a good bench that can come out and contribute when needed.”
- Russell Westbrook on his career-high assists: “If that’s what I have to do to help my team win that’s what I am going to do. I would rather my teammates get involved before I get myself going. I think it’s all a learning process. I am happy about tonight.”
- Kevin Durant on Westbrook: “His performance was unbelievable, probably the best game I’ve ever seen him play. He handled the team so well, he ran the team well.”
- Nick Collison on the team’s defense: “I think we were just real sharp tonight. Everybody was into the game. We had some really good days of practice. And when we’re mentally into it we can be really good defensively because we’ve got a lot of athletes and we’ve got guys that naturally want to play hard. When we have problems like we saw in the preseason and at times last year is when we lose our focus and when we’re not concentrating on where we need to be.”
BY THE NUMBERS
13: Career-high assists for Russell Westbrook.
14: Free throws attempted and made by Kings guard Kevin Martin.
23: Biggest lead by the Thunder.
39: First-quarter points scored by the Thunder.
40.5: Field-goal percentage of the Kings.
51.3: Field-goal percentage for the Thunder.
18,203: Announced attendance, the first sellout of the season.