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Small sample takeaways for the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have looked surprisingly competitive against tough opposition

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder have played three games and have lost all three contests but there has been a lot to like about the team’s performance so far. Before the start of the season, optimism about the Thunder had somewhat faded. Chet Holmgren is not going to play this season and his presence would have been transformative for this roster. His absence is a painful loss.

There was also a nagging doubt in the back of the mind for all Thunder fans; what if the young guys fail to meet their promise and struggle? It is not a possibility that could be easily dismissed, preseason form can go out of the window once the games become meaningful.

The first week of the season would indicate that the Thunder’s youth are meeting their promise. Oklahoma City took the Timberwolves all the way and had chances to win the game. Poor execution and strong interior defense from Rudy Gobert allowed Minnesota to sneak away with the win.

On Saturday night, the Thunder went back-and-forth with the Denver Nuggets before eventually losing by five points. Again, Oklahoma City could have executed better late in the game, there were two horrific airballs in the fourth quarter but it was encouraging to see the Thunder push a team with a legitimate title aspirations all the way. Here are a few small sample size takeaways from the first three games.

Josh Giddey is playing slower:

Josh Giddey’s productivity in the half-court as a playmaker has not diminished but he is generating looks differently. Last season, Josh read the defense and reacted to how his teammates moved across the court. Giddey was instinctive in how he passed and often sought to move the ball quickly.

He was also much more happy to move the ball East-West to try and massage an opening in the defense. It was an approach that worked well for the Thunder but it seems that Josh is playing more methodically this season.

The way he brings the ball up is emblematic of Giddey’s control of pace. In the past, Josh would race up the court and play at a quick tempo relentlessly. He is now walking the ball up, surveying the defense and getting the team into their sets.

His pace has not gone away but Giddey is deploying that speed in a different way. He is catching the opposing team off guard by how quickly he processes the game and makes a cross-court pass to the corner.

In the Denver, he generated a few clean looks for JRE by spotting that the strong-side corner defender had stepped up and away from Robinson-Earl. He noticed that Jeremiah was in acres of space and threaded a ball with perfect accuracy and speed. Giddey is playing slow until he needs that burst of pace.

His new-found patience has made him more dynamic in the half-court as his passing is more penetrative. The ball is puncturing the defense and Josh is putting his teammates in position to make plays with the basketball. Robinson-Earl drained two clean corner threes off laser passes from Giddey. Finding the corners more often has helped the Thunder’s offense a lot.

Hand-offs involving Tre Mann have been productive:

Over the last three games, Coach Daigneault has experimented with Tre Mann’s role quite a lot. Mann has assumed greater responsibility for shot creation with Jalen Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both injured. To get the most out of Tre, Coach Daigneault has ran a hand-off action to get Mann heading downhill and into the heart of the defense.

We saw the Thunder run this play numerous times during the Denver and first Minnesota game; the action usually involved Giddey weaving towards Bazley and dumping the ball off. Mann would then sprint off the weak-side break and catch the ball. As Tre turned the corner, Bazley would reposition himself and screen Mann’s defender.

It was a well-designed action from Daigneault and I thought that the play call gave the Thunder more variety than a standard isolation play. Tre could curl off Bazley’s screen into empty space in the non-painted area and had plenty of time to nail an easy floater.

The action also opened up passing opportunities for Tre. In all examples, the big stepped up to contest the shot which left the backline open for a cutter but the Thunder did not really exploit this opportunity. Nobody really cut but this is something the coaching staff could work on for the future.

I also liked the action for what it could do for Darius Bazley’s game. I have always maintained that Bazley is best as a play-finisher rather than being a shot creator. Putting Bazley in a simple screen and roll action would allow him to attack the basket and reduce the number of potentially errant touches he might have.

I want to see Coach Daigneault play with this set a little more as I think the Thunder have the tools to make this sort of hand-off play a staple of the team’s offense. Aaron Wiggins is an excellent baseline cutter and I think he would get two or three easy baskets a game with how the hand-off challenges the opposing team’s rotations.

The first three games have not been indicative of the performance levels for individual players. The sample size for that sort of assessment is simply too small. However, the sample is large enough to make some judgements on how the Thunder are playing and will continue to play this season.

From what I have seen so far, it is clear that Oklahoma City are playing more methodically and with a greater number of contributors in one single action. The Thunder are playing team basketball and hopefully this is something that the team can sustain for the long-run.