NBA referees were instructed to focus on five points of emphasis coming into this season, and two of them could be tough for the Thunder to adjust to.
They include contact on jump shots, traveling, discontinued dribble, illegal screens and delay of game after a made basket.
The last two are where the Thunder could run into the most trouble.
Oklahoma City relies heavily on screen-setting to free up shooters and ballhandlers, and players such as Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison are two of the Thunder's most used screeners. In a January road loss to Denver last season, before illegal screens were a point of emphasis, the Thunder was called for three illegal screens within a two minute, 50 second span in overtime.
While the legality of a screen can be contentious, the delay of game penalty after a made basket is an area the Thunder has much more control over.
Any player whose team has just scored is now prohibited from touching the basketball after it goes through the net. It's been widely reported that the emphasis on this rule is to speed up the game. But that is not the case, according to Joe Borgia, the NBA's vice president of referee operations. Instead, the rule is being implemented to eliminate teams from depriving the new offensive team the opportunity to inbound the ball.
The infraction was called at several points in multiple Thunder games throughout the preseason, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks spoke to his players about the point of emphasis in the team's morning meeting before the season opener Wednesday at Utah.
“It's not a concern, but it's something that we have to be well aware of,” Brooks said. “It's so natural to get the ball and tap it back to the referees. But the league does not want that, and so we have to abide by those rules. It's not a subjective thing. Either you touched it or you didn't touch it … We feel that's a good part of the rules. We want the game to go fast. We want to play fast. When teams do that, it frustrates us, so we want that ball to be free so we can take it out quickly and try to score.”
Thunder forward Serge Ibaka could have the most difficulty adjusting to the new rule. Since he came into the league, Ibaka has routinely grabbed the ball after the first of two free throws and placed it to his face as if smelling it.
Ibaka said he doesn't understand the new rule but is trying his best to adjust.
“I can't do nothing right now,” Ibaka said. “I need to just try to be focused and don't do it. But they've been doing a great job helping me. Every time I try to go ask for the ball they stop me. So that's great. That's helping me.”
Two delay of game penalties result in a technical foul and a free throw attempt for the opposing team.
The league clamped down on pregame rituals last season, allowing only 90 seconds to report to the jump ball circle before issuing a delay of game warning. The Thunder had one of the more elaborate pregame rituals in the league the past two seasons.
Now, two mental mistakes could lead to one free point for the opponent.
“A quarter of the games are won by five points or less in this league,” Brooks said. “And so anytime you're giving a point to your opponent it puts us at a disadvantage. So we have to be very cognizant of that rule and not let it impact us this season.”
It took one minute, 16 seconds for the Thunder to violate the delay of game after a made basket rule against Utah. Perkins was the culprit after a putback layup.
Perry Jones III then made the same mistake with 20.3 seconds remaining in the first quarter, resulting in a technical foul shot for the Jazz.
With 5:19 remaining in the second quarter, Perkins again grabbed the ball following another Thunder basket, resulting in another Jazz technical foul shot.
Utah forward Derrick Favors on the Jazz being written off: “That's added motivation. We can't listen to what the critics say … That's just added motivation for us. We just want to come out here and prove everybody wrong.”
The Thunder will conclude a two-game road trip at Minnesota on Friday. The Timberwolves held their home opener Wednesday against Orlando. Tip-off is 7 p.m.