These two possessions show why the OKC Thunder are a legitimate title contender
It was one possession on each end in OKC's opener, and they tell you everything you need to know
If you're in the camp that believes the Thunder are an honest threat to the Warriors, there are likely two main reasons you feel this way. One, they have three individually elite offensive stars. And two, they possess the collective parts to be an equally elite defensive team. In Game 1 of the NBA's latest Big 3 experiment, both of these tantalizing traits were on full display.
Before we go any further, let's be clear that OKC was far from perfect in its 105-84 season-opening win over the Knicks. Neither Paul George nor Carmelo Anthony shot particularly well, and an argument could be made that indeed they shot too much. And again, they were playing the Knicks. That bears repeating. For that reason alone, at least some of what we saw from OKC on Thursday has to be taken with a grain of salt.
That said, it's far too early to start evaluating every nuance of any team's performance, let alone one whose three-man core literally just played its first real game together. What we're looking for are moments, signs of things to come, little pieces of film that show us what, exactly, this Thunder team has a chance to be. Through that lens, let's take a look at just two OKC possessions from Thursday night -- beginning with the first time they touched the ball. Check this out:
This possession, which resulted in the first bucket of Melo's OKC tenure, tells you everything you need to know about what is going to make the Thunder so dangerous on the offensive end. Note, it doesn't involve the type of ball movement with which we've all become so enamored. Pretty simply, it's just great players making a play on sheer talent. On the offensive end, that's how the Thunder are going to beat you. That's why they're going to have a puncher's chance against any team on any night, including the Warriors. Because they have three guys who can create offense against anyone.
This possession starts with Russell Westbrook drawing defenders simply by driving downhill, which he's going to do all season in his sleep. Of course, the defense has to react, which leaves George with a wide-open 3 in the corner. Last season, George shot 41 percent on corner 3s, and he's going to be more open this season than he has ever been in his career. He's going to make a lot of those shots, and that will be the extent of a Thunder possession. Russ made a play, P.G. or Melo made a shot. End of story.
On this one, of course, George missed, only there was Westbrook making another play, this time with an offensive rebound and subsequent kick-out to Melo, who is also going to enjoy more open looks this season than he has ever been afforded.
On the night, Melo wasn't terribly efficient, finishing 8 for 20 from the field and 3 of 10 from downtown. He forced a handful of contested jumpers, and you can bet people are going to jump all over the way he and George, at times, reverted to the type of isolation offense they've become so wired to rely upon after years of existing as their teams' only hope. They'll figure that out. They'll learn to suppress their score-first instincts, at least in spots, for the greater good -- as evidenced by Westbrook clearly going out of his way to get his new co-stars involved by piling up 16 assists en route to, you guessed it, another triple-double.
For the most part, OKC is going to survive, and often thrive, by flat-out making a bunch of individual plays and letting the ball sharing trickle down from that threat. That's how they tallied 26 assists Thursday. Remember, Westbrook basically won 47 games by himself doing this last season -- creating for himself with his assists largely being a byproduct of the attention he drew rather than any heightened commitment to teamwork. The difference this season isn't necessarily that Russ -- or George or Melo for that matter -- is going to suddenly become a more instinctively deferential player, but rather, that Melo and George will join Russ in also winning a handful of games on their own by simply doing things like this:
George took 13 3-pointers Thursday, many of them of his own creation or just by pulling the trigger on a catch. This clip above is a simple play. It doesn't require a ton of ball or player movement or any of the "buy into the system" intangibles that we all seem to think will decide OKC's fate. It's simply a great player, with other great players around him to keep the help defenders at bay, dribbling into a 24-footer.
See, the Warriors have conditioned everyone to think the only way to win at the highest level is to be best friends and move the ball as though your offense is choreographed. In a perfect world, sure, this has proven to be the most effective way to play the game these days. Get everyone involved. Three hundred passes and all that. But you have to remember, not everyone has the Warriors' roster. You play to your strengths, and OKC's strength is that it has three players who more times than not are going to be better than the player guarding them.
That's the way Westbrook and Kevin Durant made it work all those years. They were a consistently elite offense, and came within a Klay Thompson miracle Game 6 of eliminating the 73-win Warriors two years ago, by playing largely "our two players are better than your five players" basketball. Now, the Thunder have three players of that caliber on the offensive end. And unlike a team like, say, the Rockets, who got tougher on the defensive end but are still playing to outscore you, the Thunder have the attributes to be truly great on both ends. Which brings us to our second example of OKC's potential.
Get a load of this defensive possession:
If you're a fan of defense, you can't stop watching that clip. Run it again and you'll notice it all starts with ... Anthony, who is supposed to be the defensive weak link. The Knicks run a screen action to free up Kristaps Porzingis coming across to the strong-side block, but Melo recognizes it, navigates the screen and then proceeds to front the hell out of Porzingis to deny any possibility of an entry pass.
So the Knicks have to start swinging the ball, at which point OKC's defense turns into a switching, rotating, everyone-flying-to-a-man work of art, forcing Courtney Lee into a long, contested two, which is a win for any defense, with the whole thing being capped off by one of Westbrook's 10 rebounds. Then, they're off to the races.
If you look closely at the lineup OKC has on the floor during that possession, you'll see the three main reasons the Thunder are going to be so defensively daunting this year: George, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams. George and Roberson can guard four positions, five in a crunch, and thus can switch and rotate all over the place. Adams is a terrific rim protector behind all that switching, but as evidenced in this clip, he can also contain guards off the pick-and-roll long enough for all those lengthy defenders to recover. And now, with Melo and George to space the floor on the other end, OKC doesn't have to worry so much about Roberson's lack of shooting and can more reasonably leave him on the floor late in close games.
And that's huge, because Roberson is an absolute defensive beast. He can guard the best scorers in the world one-on-one and more than hold his own. OKC doesn't need any gimmicks. It can simply play you man for man and switch accordingly, and you're going to have your work cut out to get consistently good looks.
Also note the effort on that possession. It's one thing to have the collective length and athleticism, but you still have to hustle your tail off to execute a possession like that for the full shot clock. Multiple-effort plays, as you'll hear coaches and players refer to it. You race around screens. You slide over to help, then fly back out to shooters. You communicate. You stay low when your legs are burning. Yes, it's the first game of the season, so energy should be high. But you can tell, by these two possessions alone, one with Westbrook scrapping for an offensive rebound and shooters relocating to open spots, and one with the whole team connected on a string of relentless defensive pursuit, that OKC is a team invigorated by its legitimate chance to compete for a championship.
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