OAKLAND – The Thunder nearly spoiled it all. With a dramatic third quarter charge and a tenacious back-and-forth battle for the final 19 minutes of action, ring night for the Golden State Warriors nearly ended in a win for the shorthanded Thunder, but down the stretch Head Coach Billy Donovan’s squad just didn’t quite have enough firepower to take down the stacked defending champions.
Already without Andre Roberson, the Thunder learned for certain it wouldn’t have Russell Westbrook at shootaround on Tuesday morning of opening night as he recovers from knee surgery. However, a starting lineup of Dennis Schröder, Terrance Ferguson, Paul George, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams combined with a second unit of Raymond Felton, Hamidou Diallo, Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant and Nerlens Noel to hang in there and go toe to toe for 48 minutes.
In the first half the Thunder struggled to knock down jumpers and couldn’t get all the way to the rim to finish either. Making the flow even more difficult was an over-abundance of stalled out offensive possessions resulting in post ups for Steven Adams, Patrick Patterson and Jerami Grant. With the right matchups, those can be very advantageous possessions for the Thunder, but shot attempts other than layups or drawn fouls aren’t high efficiency looks on the block with the back to the basket and defenders slapping and converging.
“We had some pretty good looks. When we get a little bit stagnant offensively and we’re not moving the ball, we labor to score,” said Donovan. “On some of their switches, when we had some mismatches, we needed to attack them a little bit earlier. We got caught allowing them to load up.”
“We offset some of the poor shooting by getting to the free throw line,” Donovan added, referencing the Thunder’s 37 free throw attempts, “but we shot 64 percent. We gotta find a way to do better three.”
By the 24-minute mark, the Thunder trailed by 10, having shot just 31 percent from and turning it over nine times. Not hitting shots was part of the problem, but the bigger issue was not playing stylistically to the identity that was set out in the preseason. That all changed to start the third quarter, when a combination of a Paul George heater and better pace in the offense put the Warriors on their heels.
“The whole game we pushed the ball up the floor,” Donovan noted. “That’s when Paul got a lot of his stuff. Even on misses or makes we found him in transition and got him on some screen downs.”
“We just made a couple reads of what we were seeing on film,” Adams said. “We started just exposing it a little bit and it turned out really well.”
George, who finished with 27 points, knocked down his first five shots of the third quarter, including two three-pointers, to ignite a 22-9 Thunder run to begin the half, resulting in a 69-66 Oklahoma City lead with 7:16 to go in the period. The electricity emanating from George’s hot shooting sent a jolt through the Oracle Arena crowd, along with shockwaves through the jerseys of the players in Thunder blue.
“The third quarter I came out and just said, ‘I’m going to be a scorer and look to come into those shots looking to score and make baskets’,” George noted. “I was able to get into a good rhythm to start the third.”
From there on out, it was nip and tuck, with mini-spurts by both clubs defining the mood inside the arena. As it has been over the years against the Warriors and others throughout the league, the Thunder’s defense was disruptive and forced mistakes left and right.
At night’s end, the Warriors shot just 44.2 percent from the field, including 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) from the three-point line while attempting just 18 free throws. More impressive was the 20 turnovers that the Thunder defense forced by getting its length and athleticism into the game by keeping arms in passing lanes and helping over from the weakside. Those giveaways resulted in 19 Thunder points on the other end.
“That’s the only way we gotta play this team, be physical and be aggressive,” said George. “We did a good job. No moral victories, but some stuff that was positive for us that we can take away from this.”
The defense was firm on the first attempt, but it faltered after the ball hit the rim. A series of second chance put backs for Golden State killed the Thunder down the stretch, and it was symbolic of the backbreaker for Donovan’s team all night. By racking up 16 offensive rebounds, the Warriors scored 20 second chance points, including 4 in the final six minutes of play as Golden State gradually pulled away.
“This was guys not turning and checking. This was guys running past our heads,” Donovan explained. “This wasn’t like two guys battling and we got out-physicaled or they jumped higher than us. We let guys run by us and they went to the glass.”
After Adams pulled the Thunder to within two at 99-97 late in the fourth, the Warriors ripped off a 9-3 run to close out the game, as Stephen Curry got a frog-legged elbow jumper to go down through a foul call, Kevon Looney scored off a broken play and Kevin Durant hit a runner.
On the other end, a combination of missed jump shots and turnovers did in the Thunder’s final hopes of a valiant comeback. Despite the result, the 0-1 Thunder can keep their heads high because of its effort and relentlessness and can carry that mojo into Friday’s second game of the season, in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
“Nothing to hold our heads down about,” said rookie Hamidou Diallo, who played the first 9 minutes of his career. “We just gotta get back in the gym, watch film and just try to get better and go after the next one.
“There’s a lot of positives,” said Schröder, who finished with 21 points, 9 rebunds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a block. “We played as a unit. We did a great job playing defensively, running, moving the ball, but we can still improve on a lot of things as well.”
Highlights: Thunder at Warriors - 10/16