For the first time in this pre-season, we really got to see the starters get some extended burn together. Harden, Perkins, and Sefolosha all came back from injury, and hardly any time was given to non-rotation players.
As such, you could treat a lot of what happened tonight as you would a real game. So to see the Thunder jump out to an early lead was quite refreshing, to say the least. The players were playing at full capacity, and it really looked like they were on a mission for the first quarter and a half. Ibaka was straight up ridiculous, hitting two threes from the corner, and even Westbrook was looking reliable from beyond the arc. Denver's offense looked disjointed at first, and they were having trouble getting a solid rhythm going.
But the Thunder's early lead crashed down midway through the second when Perk lost two balls in the paint and started complaining about fouls to the refs constantly. He was out for three or four plays, and it pretty clearly messed with the team's mojo. Denver had climbed back to within 7 at the half, and by the end of the third they had managed to tie the game. They briefly had a one point lead early in the fourth, but the Thunder quickly re-took it and never looked back.
Part of the reason for Denver's success was their ability to exploit mismatches. For some reason, they always managed to get Danilo Gallinari being guarded by Collison and Ibaka, who are too slow to seriously challenge him from that distance. They were also very good at focusing the defense on one side of the court, then rotating it out to the weak man for an open jumper. All of the above pretty much fits in with the excellent ball movement that Ty Lawson and Andre Miller provided.
Later in the game, when the Thunder subbed out Kendrick Perkins, the Nuggets really took it to them inside. The Thunder had both Ibaka and Collison guarding the paint, but the Nuggets always seemed to find a way for them to rotate out of the paint and grab an open dunk. When Aldrich was subbed in, he wasn't of much help either, as I saw JaVale McGee destroy him in the paint twice. There wasn't so much a matchup problem as there was great ball movement from the Nuggets. Still, I'm not really reading too much into it because it's the pre-season.
Speaking of JaVale McGee, he had a few great "JaVale" moments in this game. At one point, it looked like he was going to have a crazy tomahawk jam after leaping from the right block, but he ended up clanking it off the far side of the rim. Oh, JaVale. Aside from that, there were two moments where he was running to the other end of the court behind the Thunder's ballhandler. Both times, the ballhandler stopped after they got past the half-court marker, so they could set up the offense. The result was JaVale being unable to stop himself and leapfrogging over the player in question. You heard that right. Leapfrogging. Both James Harden and Reggie Jackson were victims, and both gave him a pretty good "Did you really just do that?" facial expression afterwards. JaVale McGee is truly a joy to watch.
In case you weren't there tonight, about a second after the third quarter buzzer sounded, Kevin Durant threw up a three quarters court heave that went in. It didn't clank in or bounce in. It perfectly swooshed in, like he had planned it all along. He wasn't standing when he took it, either. He pretty much just grabbed the ball, turned around in mid-air and heaved the thing. Eat your heart out, LeBron.
Russell Westbrook's performance was pretty much a wash. He did a good job of getting the offense going, but, much as he has in the past, the quicker Ty Lawson gave Westbrook fits on offense. He clearly wasn't able to get to the spots he wanted to on the floor, and ended up narrowly clanking some tough fadeaways.
Reggie Jackson got to lead the second unit tonight, but he didn't handle the ball as much as he usually does, deferring to Harden and Westbrook on different occasions. He was an effective scorer though, pretty much driving the Thunder's early second quarter run with a couple of threes. I'm still not convinced that his offense is at the level that would warrant putting him in over Maynor, but we'll see.
Much as he would in a real game, Perry Jones III only got spot minutes tonight. He had a nice layup and jumper in the fourth quarter, and he played aggressive defense. Cole Aldrich was a different story, as he had a rather off night. He hit a couple shots in the fourth and his rebounding was solid. But his defense, namely his man-to-man defense, wasn't anything spectacular. And he really wasn't involved at all offensively. DeAndre Liggins was the only Training Camp invite to get time tonight, but he didn't do much other than put in a late layup.
The rest of the regular cast of characters did as you would expect them to. Kevin Durant was a bit less efficient then usual, but he made up for it by knowing when to pass. Nick Collison didn't seem to want to shoot the ball at all. Kendrick Perkins was our main defensive asset in the paint, but didn't do much else. And James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha both had good statlines, though I saw them lose their assignments on the perimeter a couple of times.
All in all, it was a solid outing from the Thunder, despite a couple of offensive droughts. The Nuggets played to their strengths and managed to bug the Thunder's stars, but they found ways to get the whole team involved in the offense and pull through. This could prove invaluable during off nights, especially now that the Thunder have the "Western Conference Champion" target on their back.
Thunder Wonder: Serge Ibaka, for a nearly flawless offensive performance
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, for having one of his highest assist totals ever
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, for being bothered by Ty Lawson and missing a lot of jumpers
Thunder Plunderer: Danilo Gallinari, who exploited mismatches all game
Next Game: At the Chicago Bulls, Tuesday, October 23rd, 7 PM Central Daylight Time.