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It was a loss, but it's a loss I felt really good about. In fact, is was just as satisfying as a win. With Durant, Westbrook, and Collison sitting the entire game out, the Thunder's bench managed to push the Bulls starters to the brink before finally folding in the final seconds.
In fact, the only gigantic overbearing negative in this game was James Harden. If he hadn't been in during the final seconds and Lazar Hayward was, I might venture to say that we would have won this game. And yes, that's a huge knock on Harden, but the man was atrocious offensively tonight.
Yes, he went 2-17 from the floor. Now, I'm not denying that that guy didn't play smart. He had 12 free throws, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds. His defense wasn't bad either, as no Bulls guard really got it going offensively. But Harden really killed the offensive flow of the Thunder with his clanks. He was the guy relied upon to create shots for himself, and he just couldn't. He wasn't athletic enough to get to the rim with authority, and he wasn't quick enough to evade his defenders in time to get a clean shot. The guy just looked bad.
But the biggest error he committed tonight was his late game free-throw shooting. He missed two separate but critical free throws that, if made, would have brought the Thunder to within one. I know it looks like I'm being unfair to the guy, especially in the Pre-Season. But if he's to earn his max contract, he has to perform in the clutch, he has to know how to drive the lane, and he has to make tough shots. Darnell Mayberry said it best on Twitter today:
"By the way, this is the type of lineup James Harden should be expected to carry as a max player."
Anyway, while we're busy being Debbie Downers, let's look at the rest of the negatives for tonight. As the Bulls commentators frequently mentioned, Hasheem Thabeet can't move laterally on defense, and that was exploited by Carlos Boozer. Joakim Noah exploited him too, but he did it differently, by stepping outside of Thabeet's defensive range and just shooting it over him. He did hold his own on certain occasions, but his offense was similarly terrible. At one point early in the game, he had the ball under the rim and got blocked twice. His lone other touch was a wonky looking running layup. The guy has no finesse down there whatsoever, and while he might look impressive against scrubs, the Bulls showed us what a top-tier big man crew can do against him. His lone bright spot tonight would be his rebounding, as he finished with an impressive 10 boards tonight.
Another negative was the Thunder's turnovers in the first half. The Bulls would flaunt a high trap in their direction and got a lot of easy steals and buckets, taking advantage of the Thunder's tendency to use high pick and rolls. This allowed the Bulls to get out to an early lead and keep it through the half. But the Thunder changed their gameplan well, having no turnovers in the third and three in the fourth.
Lastly, I'd like to touch on the defense of Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. I know that Boozer and Noah are an impressive combo, but they made Ibaka and Perk look really bad. Granted, Ibaka had a couple of nice blocks, but I can't tell you how many times I saw Perk get faked out for an easy foul, or watch Ibaka get led away from the play while Noah got an open opportunity. I know that the Thunder specialize in help defense, but they need to realize that the Bulls have some serious post threats to score and stay in the paint.
Alright, that's enough negativity for one day. It's only the Pre-Season, after all. Let's take a look at some of the positives tonight.
It was really fun to watch Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor guide the offense tonight. Ibaka was a spot on shooter, knocking down a corner three and several long jumpers. Moreover, he seemed to be better than Harden at creating shots for himself, showing the speed and awareness to turn a guarded shot into a nice looking hook or fadeaway. Boy, is it fun to watch this guy evolve. I know J.A. doesn't want to see him on the perimeter, but as Steve Aschburner pointed out on Twitter tonight....
"If Serge Ibaka becomes corner-3 threat, here's reference point: Only 1 plyr in NBA history avg. at least 1.0 3FG and 2.0 blks in season.... that would be Raef LaFrentz, 2001-02 w/ DAL+DEN. Avgd 1.3 3FGs, 2.7 bpg."
And we all know Serge is nothing like Raef. In other words, we could be seeing the evolution of a totally unique basketball player. It's still only the Pre-Season? Blast it!
Turning our attention to the backup point guard battle, Eric Maynor proved his worth, knocking down some threes and guiding the offense well. He had a bad plus minus, but that has more to do with him being absent during the Thunder's late third quarter run than anything else. He wasn't really suited to this game, as he had few scorers to pass to, but he wasn't atrocious under the circumstances.
Reggie Jackson was decent enough, but it seemed like he was always getting trapped by the Bull defense, barely able to get the ball out. He only had two turnovers, but it felt like the Bulls knew that he wasn't much of a scoring threat, so they could try to provoke a turnover without committing too much to defending him. But all in all, the situation between the two guards tonight was pretty much a push, but given Maynor's minutes, he probably still holds favor.
Perry Jones III continued his meteoric Pre-Season rise to the top of everyone's radars. He had a relatively quiet first half and was abused defensively, but he single handedly kept the Thunder alive late in the game, with 12 of his 14 points coming during the last 13 minutes. He still shot the ball, but tonight he was more of a threat inside, rolling to the basket with excellent awareness and agility. Give this man some real minutes!
Sefolosha and Liggins were almost ghosts out there tonight, as it was easy to miss their performance. But when it's all said and done, both did a good job of not allowing Rip Hamilton and Marco Bellinelli to get any easy shots. They stayed on their assignment and rarely got greedy looking for a steal. All in all, they were the unsung heroes of tonight's performance.
Last on the list to talk about are Rautins and Hayward, who got spot minutes. Rautins missed a three and hit a three, but the hit three really helped in the third quarter. That said, it could have been the last shot he takes in a Thunder uniform. Hayward got minutes in the early second and was a workhorse as usual, and he managed to hit a jumpshot tonight, something which came as a luxury to him during the Summer League.
Overall, tonight's game was a fun one to watch. I know I complained maybe a bit too much, but at the end of the day, the Thunder proved that they can play as a team even without their two stars. Some had flawed performances, but there wasn't a single guy out there who didn't make up for it in other areas. And most of all, they played like a team, not like a bunch of guys who didn't care or were looking to pad their stats and get more playing time.
Just one more to go, guys! The return of Davis and Long is tomorrow!
Thunder Wonder: Serge Ibaka, 24 Points, 8 Rebounds, 2 Blocks
Thunder Down Under: Perry Jones III, 14 Points, 4 Rebounds, 1 Assist
Thunder Blunder: Hasheem Thabet, for getting schooled in the paint.
Thunder Plunderer: Carlos Boozer, 24 Points, 12 Rebounds, 5 Assists, 2 Steals.
Next Game: Versus the Dallas Mavericks (in Wichita, KS), Wednesday, October 24th, 7 PM Central Daylight Time.