Thunder 112, Wolves 94: It’s just preseason, but thank goodness this isn’t the starting lineup
After last night’s preseason win in Miami, the Wolves traveled to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder in their fifth preseason battle this October.
Despite the internet marketing that tonight’s game, streamed on nba.com/thunder, would only be available to residents within 75 miles of Oklahoma City, I was somehow able to get access to this game at my Uptown apartment.
The Wolves, being on the back end of a back-to-back (which, who schedules a preseason back-to-back, really??), decided to sit out the team’s starters, along with Shabazz Muhammad and roll with the second unit. It went about as you’d expect.
To be fair, the Thunder were not on the back end of a back-to-back. In fact, they were getting several of their best players back for the first time this season. This includes Steven Adams, who clearly enjoyed the lack of Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng, putting up a 20 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in just 22 minutes of action.
Russell Westbrook did the same thing, pretending that tonight’s game was the NBA playoffs and Kris Dunn was actually Kevin Durant. As usual, Westbrook got mean on the Wolves, and its rookie got the brunt of the damage.
The Thunder starters taking down the Wolves’ bench shouldn’t shock anyone, and I don’t think it will. But let’s start by looking at those who will be in the rotation, and how they fared tonight.
The Wolves’ best player tonight, though, was none of the regulars. Training camp invitee John Lucas III had 18 points and shot 4-7 from the three-point line, looking like the 10-year vet that he is. Reminder: John Lucas III made the Wolves’ preseason squad one other time; his rookie year of 2005 back in the tragic KG/Ricky Davis/Marko Jaric era. Props to him for sticking around this long, but man, that was a bad team. Despite Ricky and his buckets.
Nemanja Bjelica started the game off with a high level of aggressiveness, but didn’t really withstand it. Getting the chance to potentially beat up on rookie Domantas Sabonis (who I love as a prospect, for whatever it’s worth (not much, I know)), Bjelica saw his advantage but couldn’t capitalize. It’s clear that Tom Thibodeau likes Belly handling a good chunk of the offense, but tonight was not great on that front. He shot 2-7 from the three-point line (and 3-12 overall), had 4 turnovers, struggled to protect the rim to any degree. There will certainly be better nights for Bjelica, who was probably Thibs’ main shot creation option tonight. That is not his role. In a situation where he is a complimentary player, his opportunities will be more available.
The other was Kris Dunn. Poor, sweet Kris Dunn. The young pup tried his best to take on the perpetually angry Russell Westbrook, and nothing surprising ensued. Dunn showed some nice handles, hit a long 2 on a nice stepback crossover, and showed good footwork on the offensive end. But Russell Westbrook is Russell Westbrook. Efficiency-wise, Dunn did his job; he had 17 points on 21 shots (and 8 shots at the line), but eye test said it all. There’s no shame in getting eaten alive by the league’s most intimidating point man in your first month as a pro. It’s part of the growing pains.
While not putting up anything incredible in the numbers department, Cole Aldrich had a very efficient game as the team’s temporary starting center. He scored 10 points on 4-5 shooting, had 6 boards and 3 blocks. Defensively, Steven Adams did lots of damage on Cole, especially in the second half, but Aldrich’s size and presence were apparent throughout the game.
It was the first time, for me, that I was able to fully appreciate the sheer size Aldrich possesses. He’s the human embodiment of a tree trunk, and has some low-key leaping ability (not that you’ll necessarily see him throw down any cool dunks, just that he can get up for rebounds, etc). While his limitations, especially athletically, were clear, it was also clear how he was a lottery pick once upon a time. He’ll make life easier for KAT and Gorgui this season off the bench.
Brandon Rush did his job. He only shot 3-9 in his unusual starter role (though he did start a few games for Golden State last year), but shot 2-4 from deep. That’s what the Wolves need from him, and he delivered.
Finally, after 5 games on the road, and a full preseason in Minneapolis, it’s finally time for Wolves fans to see some basketball at the Target Center. The Wolves will take on the Memphis Grizzlies next Wednesday at home, likely with their starting 5 back intact. The second unit did what they could tonight, but even they would likely admit how nice it’ll be to have KAT, Ricky, Andrew, and Zach, at their side.