Tuesday’s game provided a quick glimpse of the future holds for the team whenever Al Horford and George Hill get dealt elsewhere.
The assumption was that once those dominos fall, then the team losing games would be a regular occurrence as OKC fills their rotation with young and inexperienced players.
But that was not the case in tonight’s game. Much like the first two games, the Thunder fought until the end and made the game competitive. But the team ultimately fell short in a loss.
Like the last game, I think this is the best-case scenario for the team’s short term and long term future.
Collecting losses will help increase the odds that the franchise gets a top draft pick, but those losses suffered in the slimmest of margins will help maintain the competitive culture the team has built this past decade.
The average age of tonight’s starting lineup was 22. The veterans in Hill and Horford were replaced with Justin Jackson and Isaiah Roby, who have played zero minutes up to this point.
Both did admirable tonight. Jackson scored eight points in 29 minutes, and in his first real NBA game, Roby scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
If veterans like Hill, Horford, and Mike Muscala are to be traded, these two could be big beneficiaries for who gets their minutes.
He was a fantastic partner with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and finished around the rim and even broke the ankles of former All-Star Nikola Vucevic.
The other three starters were regulars in Shai, Darius Bazley, and Lu Dort. Two-thirds of them were impressive tonight, while the other struggled to shoot the ball.
Shai continued his 2020-21 campaign with 23 points on an efficient eight-of-10 shooting and seven assists and seven rebounds. Shai’s only downfall from tonight was his five turnovers, but turnovers are bound to happen when one is in complete control of the offense.
An early theme of this season is that teams are now more willing to send double-teams to Shai when he’s near the perimeter. Since the Hornets game where Shai turned the ball over late multiple times off of double-team, he has improved spotting these situations and passing it out to avoid turnovers.
Isaiah Roby mentioned postgame that the Magic’s coverage was to get the ball out of Shai’s hands, and he credits Shai with recognizing this and not forcing any passes. It seems that Shai has learned his lesson from the near Hornets disaster of not moving passes when pressured.
It will be interesting to see how Shai continues to handle pressures that the opposition sends to him as the season progresses. This is the first time in his NBA career where opposing teams make him their top defensive priority.
Dort continues to display his offensive growth as he finished with 15 points and shot three-of-eight from three.
Much like last night, Dort scored in various ways that saw him drive to the basket and feather his way to the rim and take open threes when available. Dort has now scored at least 15 points in each game this season.
When the Thunder blew up their roster by trading away guys like Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder, and Danilo Gallinari, a question continued to pop up during the abbreviated offseason was who was going to take up the shots with those four gone.
Early on, it seems like Dort is an answer to that question.
Bazley struggled shooting the ball this game as he went three-for-14 from the field for just six points.
This was a low game for Bazley, I was encouraged by Mark Daigneault’s decision to put Aleksej Pokusevski in for Bazley for the final 2:28.
It shows that Daigneault will not be blindly loyal to his starters and is willing to reward players who play well in games a chance to close.
Pokusevski had a sequence of plays in the second quarter where he played the point with the second unit, which resulted in a good offense. Pokusevski was able to show off his point guard skills in P&R’s where he was the handler.
This game showed glimpses of what Pokusevski could eventually become like a long and lengthy playmaker. Pokusevski also scored his first NBA points tonight with a tip shot.
The other two bench players who played well tonight were Hamidou Diallo and Muscala.
Diallo scored 13 points and grabbed eight boards with some impressive tip-ins and finishes around the rim, while Muscala continues to be a flamethrower from outside as he scored 14 points on three-of-four shooting from three.
Rookies Theo Maledon and Josh Hall played tonight as well. Maledon had seven points and three assists while Hall made his NBA debut.
Overall, if this is the type of performance the Thunder will get when it’s just the young guys, I do not worry that the team will fall apart and be blown out every game once the veterans are traded. Just like with last night’s game, this is about as encouraging of a loss as you can get considering the circumstances.
Next Game: Steven Adams makes his return to Oklahoma City as the New Orleans Pelicans play the Thunder on New Year’s Eve.