Commentary: It’s happy ending in Thunder season opener

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Russell Westbrook knocks a defender down en route to the basket.
Kevin Durant shoots over San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard Wednesday night. Durant finished with 22 points and six rebounds.
Thunder head coach Billy Donovan keeps an eye on his new team.
Dion Waiters dribbles past Spurs guard Patty Mills during the season opener.
Enes Kanter scores two of his 15 points while surrounded by San Antonio defenders. Kanter also grabbed 16 rebounds.

By Tim Farley

Billy Donovan coached his first NBA game Wednesday night and Kevin Durant played in his first NBA game since February. For both men, the evening ended on a happy note as the Oklahoma City Thunder rallied past the veteran San Antonio Spurs 112-106.

Durant looked like the scoring champ of old, although he missed a few shots. Actually, he missed 13 shots, but he made a huge trey when it counted and he was on target with four critical free throws in the waning seconds of the season opener.

At the end of the night, Durant had 22 points and six rebounds. Sounds like a reasonable performance for an average NBA player, but Durant isn’t average by any stretch. It was more of a pedestrian stat line for Durant, but the good part is the scoring king will only get better as the season moves forward.

Interestingly, moving forward was the message Donovan subscribed to during his post-game press conference as he talked about the team’s progress and lessons learned from this matchup. He was pleased with the Thunder’s ball movement and defense in the second half after San Antonio took a 55-50 halftime lead.

“They kept battling, they kept fighting and I think everyone knew it was going to be a game that was going to come down that way,” he said. “It’s the first game, and there are a lot of things we can build on and get better at. It’s going to be a work in progress and it’s going to take time but I think hopefully these guys can learn some things from this game tonight and then move on to the next one.”

Typically, improvement occurs in increments, which is what the Thunder did Wednesday night. The Spurs shot only 13 free throws, which was much significantly better than the pre-season games. Still, Oklahoma City committed 19 turnovers, 11 in the first half. That particular stat will likely be a focal point for the Thunder in future practices and games.

“I think if you add turnovers on top of free throws it becomes very difficult,” Donovan said.

Donovan acknowledged the Spurs’ veteran team and its highly respected coach Gregg Popovich, who he spent time with recently during a coaches meeting.

“We played against a team that is very good on both ends of the floor,” he said.

However, San Antonio was making some adjustments of their own, inserting newly-acquired LaMarcus Aldridge into the lineup. Aldridge, once a mainstay with the Portland Trail Blazers, signed with the Spurs during the off-season.

San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili acknowledged the always-steady Spurs have a “long way to go.”

“It wasn’t our best game. It wasn’t our worst, either, but to win in this building, you got to really do good. For being the first game I don’t think it was that bad. Of course, you want a win, that’s even better. But for the time in a long time we have sort of a new team with new guys that have to adjust.”

But, Donovan admitted, Oklahoma City finally found a way to win, aided in part by an explosive point guard in All-Star Russell Westbrook who finished with 33 points and 10 assists. Let’s not forget Dion Waiters who tallied two big buckets late in the game to keep the Thunder on top, or Enes Kanter with his 15-point, 16-rebound double double.

“It was fun, man,” Westbrook said. “We are all getting used to playing with each other and everybody getting back into the groove of things. Once we get it clicking, it is going to be hard to stop.”

That’s what Donovan is hoping as he continues learning the ropes of an NBA head coach, commenting during the press conference that he enjoys the opportunity to coach players like Durant and Westbrook.

“I just want to help and bring value to the team,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for me to coach them. These guys played and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

 

 

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