Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but a hodgepodge of young and old players were able to defy the expectations of a city and the NBA.
Do not let the first two games of this season fool you. This is still a rebuilding year for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Generally, rebuilding years are fine. Given how last season went, it’s understandable how easy it can be for Thunder fans to lull themselves into thinking this team’s fortunes will magically change again.
If it were to happen again this year, the Thunder would need to have an experienced head coach on the sidelines and a future Hall of Famer in the starting lineup.
OKC currently has neither of these.
New Orleans flexed its muscles in the fourth quarter in its 113-80 win over Oklahoma City.
First Takeaway: The Defensive Grit Is Gone
The NBA season is more than a week old, but it is enough time to see trends develop within any team.
Four games in, it’s safe to say the defensive Oklahoma City team we’ve all grown to love is gone.
After allowing 72 points in the paint to Orlando on Tuesday, the Thunder allowed the Pelicans to score 54 more points in the paint on Thursday night.
New Orleans outrebounded Oklahoma City 58 to 40, including a 2-to-1 advantage on the offensive glass (NO’s 14 to OKC’s 7).
Steven Adams, in his first game back at Chesapeake Energy Arena, posted a patented double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
At halftime, rookie backup guard Theo Maledon led the Thunder with five rebounds in 15 first-half minutes. This is alarming.
It’s not just Adams. The on-ball defending Dennis Schroder and Chris Paul provided and the rim protecting Nerlens Noel provided, along with Adams, are being missed now more than ever.
They’re gone, and so is Oklahoma City’s grit.
Second Takeaway: A Different Pelicans Team
Like the Thunder, the Pelicans are still trying to figure out who they are during the early part of this season.
New Orleans fired fast-paced head coach Alvin Gentry in favor of the deliberate style of new coach Stan Van Gundy.
The difference between last year’s Pelicans and this year’s is drastic. Entering Thursday, New Orleans went from tied for second in the NBA in pace last season (106.3 possessions per game) to 27th in the NBA (101.0 possession per game).
The Pelicans have the guys to run up and down the floor but even Van Gundy isn’t sure how he wants his team to play.
“I still am not sure what the best way for us to play is,” Van Gundy told NOLA.com on Tuesday. “I know we want to play with good pace. I also know that we want to play with more structure and discipline. Trying to find that balance is hard.”
Thanks to the Thunder, New Orleans’ 98.8 points per game scoring average will see a nice bump.
Third Takeaway: The Final Quarter
The Thunder spent much of Thursday’s game trailing the Pelicans by seven to 10 points. Several times, OKC would pull within four or five points but could not get any closer.
Oklahoma City trailed by 12 points heading into the fourth, but the Thunder only managed seven points in the 12-minute final quarter.
Maybe the players had something else on their minds. News 9 Chief Meteorologist David Payne updated viewers all afternoon and evening about the impending winter weather storm barreling towards the Oklahoma City metro. Perhaps they were worried about how they would manage a potentially treacherous ride home.
Whatever the reason, it was another less-than-encouraging sign of the Thunder’s new reality.
A team formerly known for keeping things interesting until the final buzzer is out of the late-game drama business for the time being.