Observations from Thunder-Real Madrid

I’m still getting used to West Coast time, having only moved out to San Francisco a little over a week ago, but I definitely enjoyed waking up and realizing there was going to be a basketball game on at 11:30 a.m. … even if it still is only the preseason.

Oklahoma City taking on Real Madrid in Spain, though, was an entertaining affair, with the Real Madrid completing a stunning fourth quarter comeback to beat the Thunder, 142-137, in overtime in Madrid. Here are some of my thoughts on the game:

– There was a surprise right off the bat: Domantas Sabonis, the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft and a significant part of the Thunder’s haul in exchange for longtime stalwart Serge Ibaka, took Ibaka’s place in the starting lineup next to Steven Adams in the Thunder’s frontcourt.

My expectation was the Thunder would go into this season using Enes Kanter next to Adams, something they had success with during the playoffs. Instead, Billy Donovan appears to be going with Sabonis, and the rookie looked good in his professional debut. Sabonis finished with seven points, five rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes before fouling out in the fourth quarter. Perhaps his biggest contribution, though, was burying a 3-pointer early in the game. The Thunder are starved for shooting; if Sabonis can provide it, he’ll more than earn his starting role.

– The one thing the Thunder didn’t want to see in this game was Steven Adams hobbling off with an ankle injury. It was hard to see exactly how Adams hurt it, as he came down from a shot and immediately went to the ground in pain. It appeared he may have landed on someone’s foot, but it wasn’t clear.

Adams immediately walked back to the locker room and never returned. Now everyone in Oklahoma City will hold their breath and hope his injury isn’t a serious one.

– Donovan’s rotation decisions were interesting. Already hit on Sabonis starting over Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova, which was interesting, but then the first player off the bench was another rookie, Spanish wing player Alex Abrines. It appears he and Anthony Morrow will be fighting for a rotation spot on the wing, as the two of them are similar players: slender bodied wings who can shoot but will struggle defensively. Abrines knocked down four 3-pointers in this one, though, and appears to have the upper-hand thus far.

Kyle Singler also got significant rotation minutes off the bench, and looked just as lost offensively as he did last year. For example: Singler at one point had a corner 3-pointer bang off the side of the backboard. Former first round pick Josh Huestis also got some minutes late, but did nothing to stand out.

One other Donovan decision that was interesting: playing Ronnie Price at multiple points as the team’s backup point guard. When he left Russell Westbrook in for the entire first quarter, my expectation was Victor Oladipo would be back in quickly. Instead, Donovan kept Oladipo on the bench to begin the second, leaving a unit on the court with only Kanter as a credible offensive option. Oladipo quickly came in, and I’m guessing this will change in time. Donovan should have one of his two starting guards on the court at all times.

– After Adams left the game late in the second quarter, the Thunder allowed 99 points over the final 32:11, including overtime, and had significant issues in pick-and-roll coverages. It wasn’t much of a coincidence that Kanter was on the court for much of that time in Adams’ place. Kanter has never been much of a defender, and it doesn’t appear that’s about to change.

– Someone else who hasn’t changed is Russell Westbrook. Although Westbrook oddly hardly touched the ball in the opening minutes of the game, he gradually reverted back to his usual self later on. Westbrook finished with 18 points on 14 shots in 22 minutes, and I’d expect that kind of pace when the season stars.

Oladipo finished up with 34 points on 24 shots in 33 minutes, and he threw up a whole bunch of 3-pointers with little success (1-for-7). The Thunder need Oladipo to be able to knock down some shots for them from behind the arc; if he and Westbrook both are throwing up bricks, their spacing is going to be brutal, considering they’ll be playing with Adams, who isn’t a shooter, and Andre Roberson, who appears he will remain essentially a non-factor on that side of the floor.

– Oladipo did, however, throw down this nasty dunk:

– Most people reading this likely don’t pay attention to European basketball, but Real Madrid is one of the best teams in the world outside of the NBA, and features several former NBA players or players who have been drafted by teams and not come over on its roster. From Andres Nocioni to Sergio Llull, Anthony Randolph, Rudy Fernandez, Trey Thompkins and Othella Hunter (not to mention top 2018 prospect Luka Doncic), this isn’t your typical easy exhibition game.

And, in the end, the result doesn’t matter, either. Don’t see it and think the Thunder will stink this season. But it was neat seeing the crowd in Madrid, as well as the team, celebrate the way they did after the buzzer (and after Llull tied the game at the end of the fourth quarter after Nocioni intentionally missed a free throw and it actually worked).

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