Thunder Falls to Houston, Uses Preseason Game as Chance to Learn

HILDAGO, Texas -- For Thunder players and coaches alike, Wednesday night’s first exhibition game of the season was a great opportunity to step back and assess all aspects of the game.

Identifying strengths, addressing weaknesses, finding teaching points and doling out basketball lessons will be the top priorities of the Thunder staff this preseason following the team’s 107-105 loss to the Houston Rockets. After a back and forth first quarter that the Thunder seemed to control, Head coach Scott Brooks’ team opened up its largest lead of the night at 37-30, but eventually the Rockets chipped away and built a nine-point lead of their own in the fourth quarter. The Thunder didn’t give up, reeling the game back in to within three points and giving itself a chance at a game-tying 3-pointer, which rimmed out.
“I thought we did some good things out there, but I thought we did some things that we need to get better at,” Brooks said. “I thought guys played hard. They had some good minutes out there. Eric (Maynor) and Reggie (Jackson) both did a good job. Russell (Westbrook) started off the game playing really good basketball. Defensively, he got into their guards very well.”

Maynor and Jackson, two reserve point guards who will be important parts of the squad this season, combined for nine assists, while Westbrook was patient, physical and effective, particularly on the low block. Westbrook shot 6-for-9 from the floor, scoring 16 of his 19 points in the first six-and-a-half minutes of the game.

There were 21 lead changes and 13 ties during the game, meaning it was a hotly contested affair throughout. Unfortunately, the Thunder allowed 21 second-chance points on 21 Rockets offensive rebounds, a number Brooks said must improve moving forward. The fifth-year head coach was, however, pleased that his squad only turned the ball over five times in the second half and that some of the younger players on the squad performed well, especially his backup big men.

“I thought Cole (Aldrich) gave us good minutes, I thought (Hasheem) Thabeet gave us good minutes,” Brooks said. “We had some really good activity out there. (DeAndre) Liggins, I thought, was very active defensively. That’s what we need out of that spot. Overall, I’m pleased. The first game out, I thought we had a lot of positives.”

Liggins, a training camp invitee, displayed tremendous energy throughout the contest, finding ways to impact the game in every single box score category. Aldrich and Thabeet combined to shoot 10-for-13 from the floor, pull down 14 rebounds and score 20 points in 48 minutes combined. Nights like this one in Hidalgo are a nice opportunity for young players who see smaller doses of playing time during the season to get on the floor and just play. In addition, it’s a chance for the players and coaches to step away from the rigors of preseason practices and see how their instruction is registering.

“That’s the reason for exhibition games, just to get out there and use it as a small test,” Aldrich said. “We’re working toward Nov. 1 when the season starts, and then beyond. We’re just taking every day as a little step to get better. We went hard in shootaround, and we went hard in the game tonight.”

For new guys like Thabeet and rookie Perry Jones, who performed nicely with an effective all-around game (eight points, five rebounds, one assist), these preseason games are an opportunity to get a feel for how teammates play with one another. In addition, players like Maynor, coming back from injury, or those who haven’t had much true training camp and exhibition experience, like Jackson and Aldrich, can benefit greatly from matching up alongside the teammates they battle with every day.

“You get comfortable, you get used to the team and get acclimated, you learn every day,” Thabeet said. “It’s a great feeling to come out and work hard and play basketball and just do what they tell you to do.”

The thought process for the Thunder is that Wednesday’s game, just like Friday night’s contest in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz, are equally as critical as the film sessions, practices and shootarounds that fill in the time between games. Each part of the week holds its own value in the team’s improvement and development – meaning when the Thunder hits the practice floor on Thursday in Utah, it will just be one more step in the right direction based off the things the team learned from tonight.

“It’s good, we were ready,” Brooks said. “I thought today was good. We needed it. We needed to play against another opponent. We have some good things to watch tomorrow, some things that we have to get better at and we’ve always improved in the film session and we’ve always improved on the practice floor. So tomorrow we’re going to have a good day of getting better.”