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Thunder escapes Hornets ‘hive’ in 109-107 win

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder escaped with their first win of the 2020-21 season in a close game against the Charlotte Hornets by winning 109-107.

The last couple of minutes will smear the lasting image of this game, but the team’s overall performance was satisfactory. The starters and Mike Muscala were all great tonight. The rest of the bench struggled as the Thunder’s lack of depth and experience showed.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the team’s best player tonight, scoring 24 points with seven rebounds and nine assists. A significant workload is expected this season for SGA, and one game in, that has been the case.

SGA’s distributing role will increase this season, and it is a good early sign that he finished with nine assists in Game One. Last season, SGA only finished with 10+ assists in just one game.

In his first chance to close the game as the first option, SGA produced mixed results.

He turned it over a bit too much late in the game off of double teams but could make up for it by hitting the game-winning shot. SGA will need to handle defensive pressures better next time around, but the late turnovers did not cost his team the game tonight.

George Hill seamlessly fit in with this team and produced considerably, shooting a near-perfect 8-of-9 from the field for 21 points.

Hill picked up where he left off last season with his elite three-point shooting by going a perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the arc.

Darius Bazley was also very impressive tonight as he finished with a double-double by scoring 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Bazley attacked aggressively on offense and was not trigger shy. What was remarkable from Bazley’s game tonight was how he attacked offensively, a lot of catch and went to the rim, and very creative ways to get to the basket.

We can apply the same things to Lu Dort’s game. There were some possessions where a 3-point attempt would’ve been acceptable, but instead, Dort would pump fake and attack the basket.

This shows Dort’s offensive game’s growth in that he is comfortable putting the ball on the floor and driving to the rim. Dort finished with 15 points and did a great job defending the Hornets’ backcourt of Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham.

Despite scoring struggles, Al Horford contributed in other ways, such as grabbing 13 boards. Horford played passively on offense in scoring as he only put up five shots in 29 minutes.

Mike Muscala carried his hot preseason shooting into the regular season as he scored 14 points on 5-8 shooting.

Muscala was the first player off the bench this game and is the second unit’s sole veteran. Muscala mentioned postgame that he is embracing his leadership role with the young bench guys by prioritizing defense and rebounding over the offense.

If Muscala continues to shoot like this, then there is a good chance that contending teams will get interested in trading for him.

This will be a win for both sides as the Thunder gain unexpected assets, and Muscala plays games that mean something in April and May.

Hamidou Diallo and Theo Maledon played the most minutes off the bench at 20 points apiece.

It seems that when both players are on the floor together, Diallo plays the one while Maledon plays the two. This is an exciting choice as Maledon appears to be the more natural playmaking guard between the two.

Nonetheless, Diallo was good tonight as he put up eight points and six rebounds. Maledon struggled with four turnovers in his playing time.

Coach Daigneault mentioned pregame that he planned on playing nine to 10 guys Saturday, and that is precisely what he did as all 10 players who touched the floor played at least 11 minutes.

It is early in the season, so expanded rotations are expected, especially for a team who is playing with house money like OKC.

The last couple of minutes in this game ruined what was otherwise a good season opener for the Thunder as the Hornets closed the game on an 18-7 run.

After the game, Daigneault, Hill, Muscala, Bazley, and SGA all mentioned that the team played great for 95% of the game. But for the Thunder to succeed this season, they need to play excellent 100% of the time.

This is the big lesson from this too close for comfort win, the low ball security did not cost this team the game, but it will most times. Shai did a great job at masking all of his low turnovers at the end of the game by hitting the game-winner, but that is not a healthy formula for success.

Despite the poor finish, the Thunder starts the season off with a 1-0 record.

NEXT GAME: The Thunder host the Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City on Monday.