After the pageantry that comes with handing out the championship rings and unveiling the championship banner, there was still a game to be played in Oracle Arena on Tuesday night. That game featured a matchup between two Western Conference rivals—the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Some of the luster would be missing from this meeting of the two teams as Russell Westbrook was sidelined.
The Warriors were in control for most of the game, save a third quarter when the Thunder got hot and briefly held the lead. In the end, the Warriors made the plays when it counted and began their quest for a third-straight championship with a 108-100 win over the Thunder.
Jones and Looney impress in extended minutes
Perhaps the most head-turning part of this game was the play of the Warriors’ young big men. In his first career start, Damian Jones turned in easily the best performance of his career. Playing 26 minutes, the third-year center from Vanderbilt scored 12 points while grabbing 3 rebounds and blocking 3 shots. It was a career-high in minutes, points, and blocks for Jones.
Jones did a great job attacking the basket, catching lobs and throwing down dunks much like how JaVale McGee did in his two seasons with the Warriors.
It’s clear that the Warriors want to assess what they have in Jones this season and performances like the one he gave on Tuesday night would go a long way in securing a place for him in the team’s long-term plans.
After the game, head coach Steve Kerr announced that Jones would be the starter for the team’s next few games.
Steve Kerr says the Warriors will stay with Damian Jones as starting center through at least this upcoming road trip to Utah, Denver.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 17, 2018
Kevon Looney, re-signing with the team this off-season, turned in a sterling performance against the Thunder as well. Coming off the bench, Looney ended the game with 10 points and 10 rebounds, including 8 offensive rebounds.
Here we see Looney getting one of those offensive rebounds and two of those points, following up a Kevin Durant miss with an impressive putback dunk.
Looney’s defense, especially when he was switched onto quicker perimeter players, was a bright spot as well. With the score close in the final minutes of the game, Looney came up with a key stop on Thunder All-Star Paul George, drawing a shot-clock violation.
Between Jones, Looney, and Jordan Bell, the Warriors have three young and athletic big men on their team. It gives them an element they haven’t had in previous seasons, perhaps turning their center spot into a source of strength rather than something to be covered up and worked around. That will only become more true once DeMarcus Cousins finished rehabbing from his ACL injury and returns to the court.
The two former MVPs provide the offensive punch
Stephen Curry looked ready to put an injury-played 2017-18 season behind him on Tuesday night against the Thunder. Curry looked like his usual MVP self, scoring 32 points while going 5/9 from long distance.
Curry got three points the old fashioned way on this play late in the fourth quarter, even breaking out his trademark shimmy.
Curry didn’t just affect the game as a scorer as he also had 9 assists and 8 rebounds. It was an well-rounded performance from Curry, who was able to snatch rebounds away from Thunder players even when he was giving up quite a few inches and pounds to his opponent. It was a great night for Curry, one that will hopefully set the tone for a great 2018-19 season.
The Warriors’ other former MVP had 27 points of his own in the win. Durant’s performance was slightly more uneven than Curry’s, specifically from long distance as he went 0/5 from three-point range. But Durant’s points came at a crucial time with eight of his 27 points coming in the 4th quarter as the Thunder threatened to steal the game.
Durant finished the game with eight rebounds and six assists as well. With those six assists, Durant looked poised to continue his progression as a passer and distributor that began last season. Five of Durant’s six assists were to Curry as the two played a nice two-man game at different times during the win over the Thunder.
While Curry and Durant played well, Klay Thompson struggled quite a bit in the opener. Thompson finished with 14 points, shooting 25% from the field and 12.5% from three-point range. One interesting new wrinkle Thompson displayed was a willingness to drive and attack the basket off the dribble.
This did not result in made baskets every time, as this is something new to his game and something that in the past has not been his greatest strength. But even though he struggled and did not shoot as well as he normally does, seeing Thompson trying to add something new was a good thing and will pay dividends later in the season.
Turnovers and fouls keep things close
Two big reasons why the Thunder were able to stay in this game, one that the Warriors seemed poised to turn into a blowout, were Warriors’ turnovers and fouls. The Warriors ended Tuesday night’s game with 20 turnovers, which resulted in 19 Thunder points. Some of this might be beginning-of-season rust that needs to be dealt with through repetition. That makes sense when you note that Draymond Green, who missed much of the preseason with an injury, has a team-high six turnovers.
While he did turn the ball over, Green did finish Tuesday night with 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. But it was clear that he wasn’t completely in sync with the Warriors offense, which might have been the result of his missing those preseason reps.
The other reason the Warriors were not able to run away with this game was their propensity for fouling Thunder players. The Warriors finished their win over the Thunder with 29 personal fouls, more than they had in any game last year. Because of that, the Thunder were able to make up for their poor shooting from the field at the free-throw line.
The Thunder attempted 37 free throws, while the Warriors attempted just 18. Last season, Warriors’ opponents shot 37+ free throws only four times.
After the game, Durant identified these two things as a reason why the Warriors were not able to extend their first-half lead beyond 14 points.
Durant: “We had a 10-point lead at the half, which could’ve been 17 or 18 if we had protected the ball and not fouled.”— Connor Letourneau (@Con_Chron) October 17, 2018
George heats up in second half for Thunder
After shooting an abysmal 1/8 in the first half when the entire Thunder team shot 31.2% from the field, Paul George played inspired basketball in the third quarter to get the visiting team back into the game. George scored 15 of his 21 second-half points in the third quarter, erasing a ten-point Warriors halftime lead and even allowing the Thunder to briefly hold a three-point advantage.
George was particularly hot from long distance, going 3/6 from three-point range in the third quarter. Between George and Dennis Schroder (who scored seven of his 21 points in the third quarter), the Thunder were able to mount a charge and turn this into a closer game than one might have expected in the first half.
However, the Thunder couldn’t keep it going as they shot 6/18 as a team in the fourth quarter (including going 1/6 from three-point range), allowing the Warriors to hang on for the opening-night win.
If you’d like to relive last season’s championship run, please consider picking up a copy of my book, Golden Age: The Brilliance of the 2018 Champion Golden State Warriors. It is published by Triumph Books and available in both paper and digital copies.
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