MINNEAPOLIS — What happened to better ball movement?
That was the biggest question facing the Thunder following its season-opening victory at Utah on Wednesday night.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, we heard all about the importance of improvement in that area. There was even evidence in the exhibition season to suggest this year would be different from past years.
But on the first night that Thunder basketball was back in earnest, the ball went back to being largely stagnant.
The Thunder finished with just nine assists against the Jazz. OKC made 33 shots.
Utah, which was without five injured players, including Trey Burke, the ninth overall pick and the Jazz's projected starting point guard, had 25 assists.
For comparison's sake, six players throughout the league on the first two nights of the season had more assists individually than the Thunder had as a team. LeBron James had 13, Michael Carter-Williams had 12 and Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, John Wall and Chris Paul each had 11.
“You can look at the assists numbers, but they're such a subjective stat,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who focused more on how many makeable shots were missed.
“If you can make a good pass and you don't make a shot, what can you do?” Brooks said. “You go on to the next play. We didn't have a high assist total, but we got a lot of good looks that we got to continue to step up and take.”
One game, especially the first game, isn't a cause for concern. But without All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, the Thunder was expected to rely more on a team approach in which everybody is involved.
Instead, we saw the Thunder revert to much of the same offense we saw fall short in the playoffs. It relied heavily on isolations for Kevin Durant, with a few mixed in for Serge Ibaka. Ultimately, the Thunder decided to simply ride Durant to get out of Utah with a win. But his 42-point performance, however impressive, was not game planned.
In fact, against better teams it can't be. Last year's second-round series against Memphis proved as much.
“We got things to work on, but we'll be fine,” Brooks said.
Implementing better ball movement and balance has been a focal point for the Thunder for years. The team, though still inconsistent, enjoyed its most success last season when it averaged 21.4 assists. But that figure still ranked in the bottom third of the league.
Westbrook's absence to start this season has presented the Thunder with an opportunity to shore up an area that has historically been problematic. The hope is that when Westbrook returns good habits will have been formed.
But old habits die hard.
The Thunder had only three assists after halftime Wednesday and none in the fourth quarter. The final period was most alarming. Durant and Reggie Jackson were the only two players to score for the Thunder, which made just four of 17 shots.
“I thought the ball movement was good at times,” Brooks said. “I thought in the fourth quarter, give them credit, they're a physical team. They slowed us up. We were getting late into our shot clock, so that kind of has a tendency to slow up the ball. But I thought for most of the game we had good ball movement. We missed a lot of shots that we normally make.”
Ibaka went 4-for-15 from the field, missing an array of midrange shots, runners and hooks. Despite his huge scoring night, Durant was just 9-for-24.
“Sometimes, that's how it goes,” Durant said. “We just got to stick with it.”
It's a long season.
“It's the first game,” Brooks said. “We're happy with the win. We're moving on to the next one.”