Thunder Continues Development After First Preseason Game

SALT LAKE CITY - For the Thunder, NBA preseason games are more a part of a fluid improvement process than a stand-alone event.

The preparation leading up to the game, the effort put into shootaround and pregame warm-ups, set the stage for contests like the one the Thunder played in last night in Hidalgo, Tex. against the Houston Rockets. Heading into Friday night’s preseason game against the Utah Jazz, the Thunder will carry over the teaching points doled out during timeouts of Wednesday night’s game, the lessons learned during film study and the execution points that the team worked through during today’s practice in order to grow. While there were certainly areas that need improvement, Head Coach Scott Brooks said that he was pleased with his team’s energy in the 107-105 loss to the Rockets.

“Looking back after the first game, we still have seven exhibition games and it is a process of continuing to grow as a team,” Brooks said. “Overall, the first game, there’s not a lot of complaints. I thought the effort was good, I thought a lot of good things happened.”

Brooks and two of his point guards, Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson, however, were quick to point to last night’s game as a learning tool moving forward. The ever-changing landscape of preseason development through games and practices means that there are always lessons to be learned and places to tweak. Overall, it was clear that the Thunder wants to focus heavily on improving on one side of the floor.

“Defending,” Westbrook said firmly. “We were trading baskets yesterday back and forth. Rebounding is a big key and just playing tougher.”

As recently as last week, Brooks and his coaching staff have been hammering home the importance of rebounding, particularly on the defensive end, to their players. On Wednesday the Thunder allowed 21 offense rebounds that led to 21 second chance points, a number that Brooks said must improve moving forward.

“We’re a very good defensive team but if you want to be a great defensive team, you have to rebound the basketball,” Brooks said. “We put an emphasis on that today in practice. It was very physical. Guys really locked in on that area of the game and I saw some growth.”

Last season the Thunder gave up more offensive rebounds than it would like, but is working consistently every day to improve in that area. Westbrook commented that part of it is making sure all five players on the floor put a body on a member of the opposing team and get a strong box out on every defensive stand. For a team that ranked third last season in opponent field goal percentage, reeling in a high percentage of defensive rebounds could be an essential to holding teams down night-in and night-out.

A second point of emphasis for the Thunder in today’s practice was taking care of the ball on offense. In the second half of Wednesday night’s game, the Thunder only turned the ball over five times, which Jackson said was a step in the right direction. Being sure to make the correct pass and find open teammates safely is an area the team will continue to work on.

“We have to cut down on the turnovers,” Jackson said. “That’s one thing we focus on, but we felt like we did a fairly decent job of that better than the past and moving the ball. We just want to continue to get better in that area. Those are the things we want to work on – cut down on turnovers, up our assists, just start sharing the ball and definitely we have to win some of these rebounding battles and keep people off the glass.”

From a wider perspective, Brooks and the Thunder basketball staff recognize the balance that must be taken to the preseason. The team has been practicing together for just over a week-and-half, and still has six more exhibition contests to go over the next three weeks before the regular season starts. Brooks believes that there is a proper balance that must be taken between the Thunder’s seriousness and intensity it takes to winning preseason games and also viewing those exhibitions as teaching points throughout the month-long pre-season development plan.

“You have to understand the process of the 30 days has to keep moving forward,” Brooks said. “There are going to be some days that it takes a step back. But you have plenty of time to keep it going in the right direction, but you also want to play to win…No matter who we throw out there, we feel we have a good enough team to compete and win every possession. That’s what we strive to be, a team that competes every possession and tries to win every possession.”