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Main lesson from the Thunder’s 94-89 preseason loss to the Chicago Bulls: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are important.
Playing without their two superstars, the Thunder struggled to find consistent offense, primarily relying upon James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka stepped up big, scoring 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting in 29 minutes, while Harden struggled mightily, scoring 13 points but on just 2-of-17 shooting.
Five big thoughts from OKC’s second-to-last preseason game:
1. Playing without Durant and Westbrook meant James Harden got a taste of what it would be like being an alpha dog. Obviously he shot the ball horribly, but he did register seven rebounds and seven assists. What was obvious though was that he stepped out of his typical game and clearly tried to force his hand offensively. Maybe he’s working on adding more of a mid-range game this season, but he rarely attacked the paint, instead settling for a lot of long, contested 2s. (Stat: Only six of Harden’s 17 came inside the painted area. That’s not like him.)
Harden attempted 17 shots, which equals the most he’s ever taken in a game in his career. Granted, this was only Harden’s third preseason game so he’s searching for rhythm, but possibly it’s a little bit of an awakening that he fits better as a second or third banana. Look at the four players he started with tonight — Maynor, Ibaka, Perk and Thabo — and compare that to who he’d likely be starting with in Phoenix — Dragic, Beasley, Gortat and Scola. Which is better? Probably the Thunder’s still, right?
But even with the awful offense, Harden showed off his overall ability and well-rounded game. He controlled the game, set up teammates and made plays. It’s one preseason game which means it would be kind of dumb to completely read in to his performance as an indictment of him as a potential alpha. I do think Harden’s game naturally fits better as a complementary player, but I knew that well before tonight.
2. Hasheem Thabeet made a little statement. Is the backup big spot still up for grabs? The 7-3 big man had an impressive five-minute stretch in the second quarter, pulling in eight rebounds and scoring six points in that span. Here’s how shocking that was: In Thabeet’s three-year career, the most points in a game he’s scored is 10 and the most rebounds he’s had is 11.
For the game, Thabeet finished with 10 boards and the six points in 26 minutes. I was really hoping he’d notch a double-double so I could share this with you: As a 7-3 center Hasheem Thabeet has never had a double-double.
It’s not really pretty out there for Thabeet. It looks like he’s close to falling over every time he lumbers up the floor. But he produced, and did it against Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah. It was a really good game from Thabeet and hopefully a sign that the Thunder developmental program is working its magic on him.
3. The Thunder are playing a back-to-back (and three in four days) to finish preseason, so reading in to playing time might be dumb, but I’ve changed my mind: I think DeAndre Liggins is getting the 15th roster spot. I think he’s just played himself into it. He’s earned it. He’s the kind of player Scott Brooks loves to throw out boring cliches about and really seems to embrace the Thunder culture and philosophy. He hustles, he plays hard, he makes plays.
Daniel Orton, who I thought had the leg up, didn’t play at all in this one while Liggins saw another game with extended minutes. Liggins is consistently seeing big time on the floor and he’s producing. I think the best plan for the Thunder would be to buy out Lazar Hayward, give his spot to Liggins and then sign Orton as the 15th man, but that’s a long shot.
4. Reggie Jackson still hasn’t mastered the timing and speed of the NBA. One area it’s obvious: Setting up a screen-and-roll. Jackson is always too eager to attack. He got Perry Jones called for a moving pick tonight simply because he took off too early. Every time he sets up the screen, he leaves a half-step too early it seems. It leaves the screener rushing to get set and throws off the rhythm and timing of the pick-and-roll.
5. Serge Ibaka seems to really be turning into something. The guy could be an offensive force. His mid-range game is more polished and tonight, he wasn’t shy at all about pulling the trigger. And not just that, but he hit his fourth corner 3 of the season. If that’s actually a thing, Serge Ibaka is about to become a pretty dynamic offensive power forward.
His improvement as a basketball player these past few seasons is nothing short of stunning. He’s a true case of a blank canvas potential type player that put in the work and is actually realizing that talent. Averaging more than 10 points a game for OKC will be difficult because of all the other weapons, but he absolutely could show up with big offensive nights and establish himself as a potential secondary or even primary option in games.
Next up: Wednesday against the Mavs in Wichita.