The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Utah Jazz on opening night, winning a nail-biter 101-98. The Thunder controlled the game for much of the night, using an 11-3 run at the end of the 1st half to build some breathing room. The game seemed to be in hand for the Thunder, who have entered the season without their All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook. Despite playing without Westbrook, the Thunder pushed their lead to 15 as the 3rd quarter wound down.
However, the tide began to turn as the Thunder offense did not make a single shot in the final 3:30 of the 3rd quarter. This stagnation gave the Jazz the opportunity they needed to regain their footing, and midway through the 4th quarter it was a one possession game. The Thunder relied on free throw shooting the rest of the way and managed to put just enough points on the board so that Utah could not catch up. Gordon Hayward's desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short, and the Thunder have their first win of the season.
OKC was led by Kevin Durant, who finished with 42 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals against 5 turnovers. Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha each chipped in with 14 apiece.
The new-look Jazz were led by Alec Burks, who finished with 24 points and 6 assists.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Midway through the 3rd quarter, I was thinking to myself, "This is exactly what I was hoping for." Durant was doing Durant things like scoring a ton of points off of very few shots, Sefolosha was an offensive initiator, the ball was swinging around the horn quickly, and after a Thabo 3-pointer, the lead was 15.
Midway through the 4th, I was thinking to myself, "This is exactly what I was not hoping for." The Thunder seemed to surrender the very things that had gotten them to that point and worse yet, they could not generate any good looks at the rim. Durant was taken to freelancing around the perimeter, and had he not earned a number of trips to the FT line, his shot was misfiring enough that the Jazz could have easily stolen this game.
One might say, "This is what it's going to be for these next 2 months." I certainly hope not. No disrespect to Utah, but they are going to struggle to get to 30 wins this year in the West. They're feisty but young and raw and they need to learn how to win. Watching OKC struggle against Memphis is one thing, but to see their offense struggle so mightily against this Utah team was a bit demoralizing.
Never the less, a win earned is a win earned. OKC simply needs to stay afloat while they figure things out in Westbrook's absence.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
The Thunder relied on a heavy dose of trips to the free throw line, making 29-33 on the night. Durant alone shot 22-24 from the stripe, which masked his offensive struggles late in the game. Against a team like the Jazz, OKC needs to find ways to produce easier baskets than they were offering this night. Durant was good enough tonight, putting in 42 of his team's 101 points, but good enough may not be good enough next time out.
That said, Durant was pretty good in his good enough phase. It is striking how much better he was than anyone else on the court, his own teammates included. Perhaps that is what makes the absence of Westbrook so jarring; when the two of them are out there, they're at least in the same general stratosphere of talent. Without Westbrook, nobody comes close.
Credit also goes to the Thunder defense, which forced Utah into 22 turnovers on the night.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
The free throw shooting was a positive, but after that, there were a number of negatives:
- The team...the TEAM...had 9 assists. Nine. With Durant as the only viable scoring option, 9 assists is first going to get him into a shooting slump and second it is going to quite possibly put him on the sideline with an injury.
- The team shot a woeful 40.7% from the floor. The culprit was that in the 2nd half, everything was coming from the perimeter. There were no easy baskets, no pick and rolls at the rim, and as a result of such inefficiency at the rim, perimeter shots were more easily contested.
- Serge Ibaka shot only 4-15 from the floor. When Ibaka is not making shots, it is startling how one-dimensional it makes the Thunder look. A number of these shots were good looks and he just missed them. That's fine. However, if Ibaka is not making his shots, I'm not sure where else OKC can turn to get consistent offense, with Jeremy Lamb still learning the ropes.
Ibaka has to get into the mindset that he needs to be able to draw fouls and earn trips to the FT line. He has to be able to manufacture points in order to take the pressure off of Durant.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The Thunder have a long way to go, but fortunately for us all it is a long season. Every game without Westbrook is going to be a space for improvement, but we must remember that every game WITH Westbrook is going to be the same way.
This is a team that has championship aspirations, but they have a number of players who as of today are not ready for that playoff push. This season should be about getting them ready in the midst of competition that they've never encountered before. The bench on the whole was incredibly inert. What was obvious during the 3rd quarter letdown is that with Durant off the court, there is at present no big offensive threat that the team can look to in order to create something. Reggie Jackson has the ability to be that guy, but often he looks too deferential.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant: 42 points, 22-24 from the FT line, 6 rebounds, 3 steals
Thunder Down Under: Reggie Jackson for his clutch 3-pointer in the 4th
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, 8 points on 4-15 shooting
Thunder Plunderer: Alec Burks, 24 points and 6 assists
Next game: @ the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, November 1st