Bursting Forward, Making Progress - OKC 113, MIN 101

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter | mailbag@okcthunder.com

MINNEAPOLIS – Maybe it was a look at the game film from Wednesday, or a couple extra days to build cohesion. Perhaps it was the return of All-Star Paul George to the lineup. No matter the reason, Head Coach Billy Donovan’s game plan for the season came into view much more clearly in game two of the preseason than in game one.

In a 113-101 victory over the division rival Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, the Thunder had it rolling early and often – playing with the type of pace and tempo deeper into the game than on Wednesday against Detroit. The difference was stark and the result even more transparent. When the Thunder plays to Donovan’s style for long, extended stretches with few lulls, it can be dominant.

“We created some clarity and had some more growth the last couple days which was a positive,” Donovan said.

“Every possession we went down and played the right way,” George added. “We had a good pace, good tempo, and that led to good opportunities, a good transition game and good looks.”

Dominant would also certainly be the best word to describe the Thunder’s play in the paint and around the rim, as a Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel platoon of centers racked up a combined 22 rebounds as a part of a plus-18 night on the glass for the Thunder as a unit. That effort on the boards helped compound the Thunder’s finishing around the bucket and ability to deter shots in the lane, which created 58 points in the paint.

“Everybody was crashing the glass tonight,” Noel said. “We did a great job of securing the rebounds.”

The Thunder had the outside covered too. George made his 2018-19 preseason debut and did it with a flourish, racking up 23 points in 26 minutes, doing much of his damage on jump shots.

Paul George

He played with a level of smooth confidence reserved only for the NBA’s elite, showing no signs of a lack of rhythm despite missing Wednesday’s game due to a personal matter.

“(We’re) trying to get (George) to play randomly, trying to get him to use his intelligence, his IQ, make decisions and reads,” Donovan said. “He’s such a good cutter and mover off the ball, and then obviously when the ball is in his hands he’s such a good passer. He played well. He got to his spots and areas on the floor.”

George paired his scoring with some playmaking for teammates, as he hit Adams for a pair of buckets to ignite the Thunder’s breakaway 15-4 run to end the first quarter to build a double-digit lead that it maintained throughout the night. The Thunder’s reserves followed with 9-0 and 10-0 bursts in the second quarter, fueled by six straight points by veteran point guard Raymond Felton and five consecutive trips to the free throw line, the Thunder began to pull away with ease.

Despite having some slippage at the end of the first half, the Thunder regained its footing to start the third quarter – precisely the kind of response Donovan is looking for his team to provide.

“We talked at halftime about coming out in that third quarter better than we did against Detroit,” Donovan said. “We came out, played with good energy and good focus. That was a positive. We’ve gotta be a team that comes out of the locker room well.”

After another stretch of solid play on both ends of the floor from his starting group, Donovan gave an extended look to youngsters like Terrance Ferguson, Hamidou Diallo, Alex Abrines and two-way player Deonte Burton. In the fourth quarter, Donovan even played Ferguson at point guard, giving the second-year man, still just 20 years old, an opportunity to serve as chief playmaker for a stint.

This is the time of year for Donovan to stretch and mold the players on the roster, to find out what they can do and get a sense of how they may fit. The rookie Diallo forced three-straight turnovers in the first half and was all over the glass, snatching up a pair of offensive rebounds and 6 total boards to go with his 8 points.

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Rookie to the rim. #ThunderPreseason

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Noel was similarly effective, shaking off some first game jitters from Wednesday to fill the role Donovan and General Manager Sam Presti envisioned in the offseason. Serving as a rim protector, finisher and rebounder, Noel piled up 12 points, 9 boards and 4 blocks, and flashed his passing ability with 2 assists.

“I’ve always loved to play the game the right way and find guys,” Noel said. “To me, that’s the most fun way to play basketball, finding guys and guys finding you and just playing naturally, getting up and down.”

All in all, it was a solid, forward progress-type performance, one that shows the Thunder more of what it can be, while still providing a glimpse of areas for improvement. Donovan’s crew will get another crack at it soon enough, with a date with the Atlanta Hawks coming on Sunday afternoon in Tulsa.

By the Numbers

6 - Players who scored in double figures for the Thunder on the night, as the bench scored _ points

23- Points scored by Paul George, who made his preseason debut and also chipped in 5 rebounds and 4 assists

57-39 - The Thunder’s advantage in rebounding, which helped boost a 58-44 edge in points in the paint

The Final Word

“Defensively we did a good job of staying locked in, staying engaged. We communicated. We were very talkative. You see that. You get one stop. One stop leads to another and it gets contagious. Guys were out there making plays. Defensively we held up.” – forward Paul George


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