Sporting new faces, the Oklahoma City Thunder eclipsed a determined, yet inexperienced Los Angeles Lakers unit 110-93 Friday night.
Even without starting two-guard Victor Oladipo (back spasms), Russell Westbrook's augmented supporting cast performed in effective unison.
As Oklahoma City embarks upon the final quarter of its well-chronicled 16-17’ journey, this is a look at the team's five main storylines following a reassuring night for Thunder nation.
Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott make solid Thunder debut
As midnight approached on Thursday's trade deadline, Sam Presti leveraged a mostly under-performing trio for a pair of proven Bulls and future second-round draft pick. In a boon for OKC, underachieving guards Cameron Payne and Anthony Morrow, along with reserve Joffrey Lauvergne, were flipped for sharpshooter Doug McDermott and a likely two-month rental of Taj Gibson.
The 2018 second-round pick simply becomes another leveraging tool within Presti’s wheelhouse of assets.
However, with Friday's LAL matchup imminent, it was unknown if Gibson or McDermott would suit up for the Thunder. Though as game time arrived, to the approval of a sold out Chesapeake Energy Arena, the former Chicago pillars donned the OKC blue and white.
In a tentative reserve role, both McDermott (8 points, four rebounds, 18 mins) and rugged Taj Gibson (12 points, four rebounds, 21 mins) made an immediate impact for their new team.
After his successful initial performance with OKC, McDermott, 25, stated of Russell Westbrook:
"It's a lot better to be with him than against him.”
We are sure Russell echoes this sentiment concerning his talented new teammates.
Westbrook’s latest triple double
Opposite Luke Walton’s crew, it took the versatile 6’3 superstar just 19 minutes to attain triple-double #28 of his season. Overall, Westbrook finished with an impressive line of 17 points, 18 rebounds, and 17 assists.
More importantly, Westbrook’s maestro-like conduction of OKC’s offense sent Los Angeles along a futile search for answers as the Thunder improved to 22-6 when Russ notches a double-digit point/rebound/assist effort.
Westbrook’s preternatural court vision helped shape the career-nights of Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson.
Abrines and Roberson shine from deep
Friday night, the spindly 6’6 Abrines made his first career start. Meanwhile, no longer burdened by trade rumors, Andre Roberson (19 points, 3-3 three-point FG’s) proffered the best offensive performance of his four-year NBA career.
Aided by the incomparable all-around offensive utility of MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, Alex Abrines buried 5-of-11 three-pointers for 19 points in 29 minutes of action.
An ecstatic Abrines related this memorable soundbite to reporters following his big night:
"This is my first year, so to be in the starting five and hear your name before the game, it's something nobody is going to take away from me. I can tell my son, 'One day I was on the starting five with Russ and these guys.'"
Now that is humility. Atta boy Alex.
Enes Kanter returns
A temporal cloud hung over OKC basketball following Kanter’s ill-fated Jan 26 decision to punch a rather sturdy steel chair after being whistled for a foul vs. Dallas. While OKC managed to defeat Cleveland sans Kanter, overall the Thunder was 4-6 without its bench-scoring big.
Fortunately, Kanter’s expedited return coincided with Oklahoma City’s trade-deadline win. These fortuitous factors gelled to create an exciting Friday night event for the Thunder faithful.
While the 6’11 Swiss national was a bit rusty (2-of-12 FGM, 4 points, 18 mins) against LAL, Kanter’s presence alone provided a palpable uplifting vibe for his revamped team.
Open roster spot
With all respect to Semaj Christon, this observer feels Oklahoma City best moves forward by filling its open roster spot with a legitimate backup point guard.
Rumors have surfaced that Sam Presti is looking to the post-trade deadline buyout market for a final piece along OKC’s playoff run.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that a serviceable addition is found.
The Thunder pulled ahead 2-1 in its season-series vs. Los Angeles. Along with the other notable positive storylines from Friday night’s win, for good measure, OKC avenged a last-second 111-109 Nov 22 defeat to the pesky Lakers.
Riding a wave of positive energy, Oklahoma City welcomes New Orleans to “The Peake” Sunday evening.