In the final dress rehearsal, two stretches, each totaling roughly eight minutes, reminded of the magic and memories made a season ago.
For the first time since its Game 6 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on April 30, the Thunder trotted out its starting unit. And for the announced crowd of 16,541 inside the Oklahoma City Arena, the first five's performance in a 101-86 win over New Orleans rekindled the positive vibes experienced during last season's 50-win run, while also serving as a mouthwatering preview of how much better the boys could be this year.
Once again, there were jaw-dropping shots and happy-go-lucky fist-pumps from Kevin Durant.
Poster dunks from Jeff Green.
Unbridled emotion from Russell Westbrook — the point guard once breaking into an impromptu celebration from his back as he laid on the court, jubilantly kicking his feet and swinging his arms as he watched his assist lead to a 3-point play opportunity.
Most importantly, there was Nenad Krstic, the starting center who missed the team's first six preseason games after undergoing surgery on his right index finger on Sept. 21. With starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha — who previously had played in only two exhibition games because of a pinkie injury — also in the lineup, the Thunder raced past a resting Hornets team playing without star guard Chris Paul and starting center Emeka Okafor.
Because of New Orleans' patchwork rotation, everything on the final stat sheet, from the final score to the Hornets' 41.5 percent shooting, should be taken with a grain of salt. But there were plenty of reasons to be encouraged.
The Thunder's starters outscored their Hornets counterparts 17-9 in the game's opening 7 minutes, 36 seconds. Including the 8:03 of playing time the first group received at the start of the third quarter, OKC's starters assisted each other on 23 of the 32 points scored during their time together. They turned the ball over only five times over that same span, three of the giveaways coming in a particularly sloppy 1:38 stretch early in the third period.
"It felt special," said Durant after scoring a team-high 19 points. "Everything felt so natural. Thabo and Nenad add a different dimension to our team, and we're happy to have them back."
Krstic finished with eight points, three rebounds and three blocked shots in 24 minutes, four more than Thunder coach Scott Brooks estimated his center was likely to receive. After missing his first shot attempt, Krstic converted his next four, including one of his customary mid-range jumpers off a pick-and-pop feed from Westbrook and a pleasantly surprising lay-in that capped a fast-break.
"Everything was smooth," Durant said. "It felt like he'd been out there the whole preseason. He came in, and of course he's going to be a little tired because he hasn't played. But it really didn't show too much. He came out and played pretty well."
But it was Westbrook and Durant who were most impressive. The two combined for 36 points, 15 assists and nine rebounds, each hitting seven of 12 shots from the field. Durant finished with a game-high eight assists without a single turnover.
"I thought we did some good things this exhibition season," Brooks said. "But it's over with. It's time to move on to the first game next Wednesday, and we're excited about the opportunity. We have five or six more days to get ready and get better.
"We still have some things to put in, some special situations and a few more defensive coverages. But I think we're in a good place. We still have some time."