With the goal in mind to use every single day as an opportunity to get better, the Thunder took advantage of the lessons and experiences it gained from its first matchup against Chicago on Wednesday and applied them in full force on Friday in its third and final preseason matchup.
Coming into Friday’s game, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault challenged his group on the defensive end to be the aggressors and not allow Chicago to get them on their heels, specifically in transition. It was that exact attention to detail on the defensive end that was on display to keep the Bulls at a 26 percent clip from the 3-point line in Friday’s game. A disciplined performance from the Thunder’s starting lineup of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, Al Horford, George Hill and Lu Dort set the tone from the very outset.
“I thought we had a really good carry over there. We addressed some specific things but, more so we challenged our team to be better and to have a little bit more force in transition and on the ball,” said Daigneault. “I thought we were much improved defensively tonight.”
On the other end of the floor, Thunder fell into a solid rhythm offensively that led to high quality looks from behind the arc and an early 15-2 run to help build up a double-digit lead. Behind a quick tempo in transition and unselfish ball movement, Thunder guards were able to draw the attention of multiple defenders and find shooters spotted up on the perimeter.
In the first quarter, the Thunder shot an impressive 62 percent from deep with Thunder newcomer Al Horford leading the charge with a 3-of-4 performance from deep. In the second half however, it was the Thunder’s returning center Mike Muscala who carried the pick-and-pop baton finishing the game 3-of-6 from behind the arc.
“Our guards get great penetration, Shai, Hami, George [Hill] especially,” said Muscala. “The way they come off of screens, the way they draw defenses attention and respect, it’s our job to give them some space and knock them down.”
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“We really got [the ball] moving the first half,” said Daigneault. “When you play like that offensively you tend to generate good shots and they’re more likely to go in on most nights.”
In the fourth quarter however, Chicago chipped away at the Thunder’s comfortable margin until the Thunder found itself down 2 points with 4 seconds left on the game clock drawing up a last-second, game-winning play for the young players on the floor. The group managed a high-quality look from behind the arc that danced around the rim before falling outside of the cylinder at the buzzer.
Even still, it’s these types of inimitable in-game experiences that have helped this young Thunder team progress significantly over the past two weeks of training camp and what they’ll look to build on in the practices and days leading up to the first game to count toward its record.
“Our group is really trying to make adjustments from game to game. Coach spoke to us about a few things he wanted us to work on and do better tonight as far as executing, and I felt like we took some leaps in that department,” said Horford. “We need to continue to get better and leading into this first game we need to have some really good practices and can feel good going into that first regular season game.”
“I felt like we had to come out there and leave it all on the floor. It was definitely our last tune ups before everything gets started, so we got to go out there and try to get in as much as of rhythm as we can. I feel like we did a good job of that tonight. We were more in flow,” said Diallo. “Now, we’ve just got to get focused and get ready for the real thing. It’s getting ready to start here.”
The Thunder’s regular season debut will be on the road against Houston on Wednesday, December 23 at 7 p.m. CT. The game will air on FOX Sports Oklahoma and on the radio at WWLS 98.1 FM The Sports Animal and the Thunder Radio Network.