First look: Revamped Thunder are explosive, ready for West gantlet

With Billy Donovan in his debut and Kevin Durant returning, the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs, 116–112. OKC looks like a force to be reckoned with in the West.
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Wednesday night marked Kevin Durant’s first actual NBA game since February, head coach Billy Donovan’s first regular season game ever, and the first opportunity for the Thunder’s core pieces—recently maxed big man Enes Kanter included—to play as a complete unit. Below are some takeaways from Oklahoma City’s 112–106 victory against the San Antonio Spurs:

At their best, the Thunder really do come close to unguardable

There are times where Durant and Russell Westbrook really do take turns running Oklahoma City’s offense, as has been the case for years. But there are also stretches where the two run parallel action—say, Westbrook initiating a pick-and-roll on one side of the court as Durant curls around a down screen on the opposite wing, which makes them impossible to defend. Even a little bit of choreography goes a long way when the principal actors are as explosive as those two. Donovan has shown an appreciation for that in his limited coaching action thus far, putting his stars into advantageous situations while also affording them creative freedom. It’s Day One of the regular season and already the Thunder’s new system has the makings of a top-three offense.


Donovan trusts Dion Waiters

Not implicitly, but enough to give Waiters a go in the closing minutes after a solid performance prior. The move paid off; Waiters hit a pair of shots in the final two minutes to give Oklahoma City the tie and the lead. The first came on a pick-and-roll in which Waiters looked off Durant, rose for a midrange jumper, and appeared to be cheered by Durant on the way back up the floor. The second was a deliberate posting by Russell Westbrook, who wanted Waiters to take advantage of the mismatched Tony Parker. He did. This game showcased the full Waiters spectrum, though it means something that both his coach and his superstar teammates trusted him to close this game out.

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Kanter’s biggest contributions came on the glass

Part of the appeal in having Kanter come off the bench is the value he provides as a go-to scorer. Second-string bigs will have a hell of a time defending Kanter on the block when the Thunder make the effort to post him, which will in turn help sustain Oklahoma City’s offense in those stretches when Westbrook and Durant aren’t leading the way. Oddly enough, Kanter wasn’t used in that capacity much against the Spurs—instead he made his living by working the offensive glass. Kanter finished with six offensive rebounds. San Antonio, by comparison, had seven as a team. That part of Kanter’s game isn’t noted often enough as it relates to his fit. Whether playing with the Thunder’s stars or subs, his presence alone will help to secure a handful of extra possessions—and prime scoring opportunities—every game.

Some of OKC’s reserve-dominant lineups could be brutal defensively

Given that 1) the Thunder will, at times, want to rest Durant and Westbrook together, and 2) Andre Roberson is all but unplayable without those stars on the floor, the stage is set for some porous perimeter combinations. One that popped up in the opener: Waiters, D.J. Augustin, and Anthony Morrow. Those three logged eight minutes together; all of which came with Kanter, a crummy defender by any measure, on the back line. Oof. 

Durant at power forward wasn’t a feature of the Thunder’s initial game plan

This could have more to do with the specific matchup than Donovan’s preferences in general, though in total we saw less than a minute of Durant as a stretch four. In fact, Kanter and Steven Adams—Oklahoma City’s two nominal centers—played together for nine minutes. The viability of that pairing over the long term is worth watching. Their blend of skills doesn’t seem all that tenable, though there’s something to be said for any lineup combination that could dominate the glass as they might.

This is, fundamentally, an unselfish team

Some players still take a few too many dribbles or hold the ball a beat longer than you’d like, but they made a consistent effort to swing the ball and nearly matched the Spurs assist for assist in the process.

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Out of the rotation: Kyle Singler

Roberson, Morrow, and Waiters each have their flaws. Singler’s value lies in how his game mitigates those deficits. He’s not the defender Roberson is but has more to offer on offense. He’s not the shooter that Morrow is but generally does better for himself in coverage. He’s not the creator Waiters is but makes more intelligent decisions with the ball. The fact that he may be the Thunder’s most balanced option at the two will give Singler a shot at some point, but every game where the Thunder wings make do will delay his opportunity.

Full speed ahead

The most important note of all: Oklahoma City (and San Antonio, for that matter) looks like a team fully ready to weather the non-stop trials of the Western Conference. Only 81 more of these to go.