MINNEAPOLIS – Russell Westbrook flirted with a triple-double in only 22 minutes of action Wednesday night, finishing the evening with 14 points, 13 assists, and eight rebounds. The Thunder easily rolled over the Wolves in the preseason opener for both teams, 122-99.
Oklahoma City took control of the game with their high-powered offense right out of the gate, scoring 42 points in the first quarter as the Wolves struggled to defend pretty much any action they ran. The pick-and-roll defense, again, was seriously problematic, as was the transition defense.
Kevin Durant made his return to the lineup after playing only 27 games last season due to a Jones fracture in his right foot, finishing with 15 points and four assists. Then there's Serge Ibaka, one of the elite defenders in the league, who added the three-ball to his game over the past few seasons to become a legitimate floor spacer. Ibaka added 18 points in 20 minutes, including two uncontested corner three's.
The end result was unsurprising given the circumstances. Yes, the defense showed nothing to be inspired by as a whole, but it's only one preseason game and context matters. Tyus Jones started in place of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett played four minutes in each half, and the Thunder's deadly trio was operating at the level you would expect from an elite Western Conference team with two superstars and title aspirations.
Karl-Anthony Towns impressed in his pro debut, finishing with 18 points (8-of-12), five rebounds, and two blocked shots in 28 minutes. He made his first four attempts (including three jumpers from 15-18 feet) and flashed his overall skillset throughout the night. If there was one flaw in his performance, it was his over-aggressive defense; leaving his man open near the basket as he tried to slide over and swat everything in his general area. But collectively he looked the part of the No. 1 pick. The way he moved from the middle of the paint out to the perimeter to contest three-point attempts was crazy to watch.
Gorgui Dieng quietly poured in 18 points off the bench. G made quick decisions on the offensive end instead of consistently holding the ball at the elbow for 6 to 8 seconds, something he grew accustomed to doing last season (which killed possessions and drove the coaching staff absolutely nuts). Another positive note was the chemistry between Dieng and Kevin Martin on the second unit. Martin made two fantastic passes to Dieng out of the two-man game, resulting in one wide-open mid-range jumper and another uncontested layup from an excellent entry-pass over the defender as Dieng made the perfect seal.
In his Wolves debut, Nemanja Bjelica proved that he's ready to turn heads in Minneapolis this season. He scored 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting (1-of-1 from downtown). Again, like the scrimmage on Monday, he demonstrated fantastic court vision. His awareness is truly impressive. One of the best sequences of the night came with the ball in his hands in the open floor when he found Damjan Rudez camped out in the left corner waiting for the pass. Bjelica fired a fastball perfectly across the court square into the hands of Rudez who quickly launched, and swished, the triple.
Bjelica also had this gorgeous no look dish to LaVine at one point. Zach didn't finish over the defenders that were waiting to block his shot at the rim, but Bjelica came right back into the play, grabbed the offensive rebound, and dropped in the layup; an enthralling play to say the least.
You said you wouldn't know until you played a game how you are defensively, what did you think?
"We have a lot of work, and we kind of figured that, you know it's tough when you play Oklahoma City. I think everyone could see tonight that they are one of the top teams in the NBA. It was a good test for our guys with Westbrook and Durant, the minutes that they played, Ibaka and Kanter, those guys came out and played hard and aggressive. It was a good learning experience for our guys, it is a tough one when you are playing a team that is probably going to be competing for the Western Conference Championship, but that's the NBA, the schedule is what it is. I would not have wanted it any other way."
Did Durant look like he had been away eight months?
"No, you look at him, LeBron James, Kobe in his early days, guys that can come off screens, shoot running one-leggers and things of that nature. He is a great player. He is an MVP candidate every year that he is healthy, Westbrook also. You look out there, and those two guys are arguably two of the top five players in the league."
Did you have any butterflies today?
"Not at all. No butterflies. I came in very energized and confident in my skills. We had a great week of training camp, had a great scrimmage on Monday and just wanted to continue the progress I've been making in my development as a basketball player."
Did anything surprise you tonight? What jumped out at you?
"Again, you're playing some of the best teams in the league, especially in the West. For a first game of my NBA career to be against the Oklahoma City Thunder, you're talking about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. So for me, just going out there and getting my feet wet. Just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, change of pace, and just trying to run our offense."
Are you overall happy with how you played?
"I'm never going to be fully happy with any game I play. There's always room for improvement. I missed four shots, try to make that down to two. I mean, I try to find the littlest things to improve my game. Three turnovers really should have been one today. You know, those are things that we're going to keep getting the chemistry of the team together and we're going to get better at."
On the team's defense:
"Yeah. As we start playing together more, knowing each other's tendencies more, it'll get better. All it takes is practice. The young guys, Karl's great at defense. He can guard the wing, he's long, athletic. He loves blocking shots. We have Gorgui down there, KG's always talking, the wings are long too, so I think with a little bit more practice, we'll be good."
On playing against Oklahoma City in the first game of the season:
"We did a lot of good things today. We have some stuff we have to clean up. Obviously it was our first game. Those guys have been playing together for like eight years."
How did it feel getting back out there and playing in front of the home crowd?
"It felt good. It's always good playing at the Target Center."
- Zach LaVine struggled in his debut as the starting shooting guard, going 2-for-11 from the floor in 29 minutes, but it wasn't a horrible showing whatsoever. The numbers are deceiving in the sense that you might think he played really awful from looking at the box score, but he did an excellent job of attacking the rim. HE DID NOT SETTLE FOR BAD SHOTS. He didn't attempt any of those 20-foot jumpers right inside of the three-point line that fans grew tired of during his rookie season. LaVine drove hard to the rack throughout the game. Sometimes you play Serge Ibaka, try to dunk over him a few times, he takes it personally, and you end up losing the battle. That was the case tonight, along with some attempts that narrowly rimmed out. He was making the right reads. That's all you can ask for right now. In terms of defense, there weren't many times he specifically stuck out as good or bad.
- Shabazz Muhammad was ultra-aggressive offensively but forced almost all of his 10 shot attempts. At one point he tried to end Kyle Singler's NBA career at the rim with one seriously explosive dunk attempt off a baseline drive (he missed, but was absolutely hacked and the foul wasn't called). Anyway, he was too eager to get buckets and played an overall bad game. He needs to slow down, relax, mix in a few of the counter post moves (right-handed hook shot) he talked about on media day, keep running in transition, pass the ball when the defense collapses on him in the paint, and work to get shots out of the catch-and-shoot from deep. On another note, check this out...
- Enes Kanter scored 16 points (8-for-10) and grabbed six rebounds in 27 minutes. Him and Towns went at each other quite a bit throughout the first quarter. Mitch McGary (11 points), Anthony Morrow (10 points), and Dion Waiters (10 points) all scored in double-figures off the bench.
- Last season, Westbrook finished with a league-best 11 triple-doubles, seven more than the next closest player (Harden, 4).
- Up next: the Wolves head to Winnipeg, Manitoba to play Chicago on Saturday at the MTS Centre. Fear not, the game is being televised on NBATV.
Karl-Anthony Towns throws it down over Mitch McGary. https://t.co/JHQHpuTCbL— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) October 8, 2015