It’s been a short, unprecedented offseason, but the 2020-21 season is finally here. The Oklahoma City Thunder will hit the road to take on the Houston Rockets in their season opener. Just 112 days ago, those teams faced off in Game 7 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Since Oklahoma City lost that series on a last blocked picture, things have changed dramatically.
Of course, the two teams look very different. While we still get the Lu Dort matchup defending James Harden, there are a number of new faces for both teams.
Here are the things to look out for in Thunder’s opening matchup.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander As A Team Front
As the reconstruction officially progresses, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is expected to be the most influential. After playing alongside Chris Paul last season, he will put his skills and leadership to the test as the team’s front.
Entering his third NBA season, there is no question that Gilgeous-Alexander has the ability to do great things. In fact, he led the Thunder in scoring last season, even with a few of the best scores in the league on his team. During the 2019-20 regular season, he averaged 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game.
With even more chances this season, all those numbers should jump. It may be a bit of an early change to carry the kind of responsibility and expectation he will have on the floor, but by the end of the season Gilgeous-Alexander could become a top-25 player in the NBA.
NBA Debate Aleksej Pokusevski
Oklahoma City has two interesting strategies in Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon. While Maledon will not be able to compete on opening night with an absence of excuses for personal reasons, Pokusevski regularly makes his first NBA season.
His three preseason games were very high and down. He had some moments that were remarkable for an 18-year-old, but he also had a number of plays that depicted youth in a negative way.
The 7-footer from Serbia is deadly from across the arc. With his ski frame, he is likely to be more of a shield in the NBA than a big one. He has the ability to handle the ball and has shown good looks for his size. While it may be a slow start to his NBA career as he makes a big leap for his age, Pokusevski is expected to be a long – term project anyway.
Nonetheless, he should get playing time on this rebuilt Thunder roster as they look to develop their players for the future. Through his three preseason games, Pokusevski averaged 11.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest while shooting 7-of-20 (.350) from outside the arc.
For a team like the Thunder, which contains most of the modern roster, it will take time to get into offensively. The ball scoring should be expected to be very inconsistent as a team in the 2020-21 season.
However, one thing that should be strong early and consistent throughout the year is Oklahoma City’s defense. Not only do they still have a locking circuit defender at Lu Dort, but they also have men like Al Horford and George Hill who are veterans and smart team defenders. In addition, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shown flair as an excellent defender, using his length to his advantage and defending a number of positions.
Nonetheless, it still begins with Lu Dort running the team at that end of the floor. He recently talked about how his team can do better defensively and how they can stay consistent.
“Really communicate – be loud and be vocal. There won’t be fans, it’s just going to be for us. So be loud, talk, and help each other. ”
At a strange time when several things could happen, defense should be one thing the Thunder try to hang their hats on.
Al Horford’s Pick-and-Pop game
Al Horford will feature his first regular Thunder tour tonight as he looks for a better find in Oklahoma City than he did in Philadelphia. In the two preseason games in which he participated, he got off to a good start, getting an average of 16.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest while shooting 66.7 percent from depth.
While shooting that way isn’t effective from outside the stable arc for an entire season, Horford will certainly have a chance to shoot a better career from that range. A big part of his offensive success was in the pick-and-pop game. After setting up a screen for the ball handler, there were several times that Horford would visit the 3-point line and bury the picture.
Horford talked about this pick-and-pop act after his 17-point performance last week against the Chicago Bulls.
“I just feel like that is how we run our crime. Guys do a good job of running it at a certain pace. For me, I have the easy part. I have to make sure I play off guard. Sometimes I’m going to roll, there are times when I’m picking up and popping. ”
This seems to be Horford’s favorite crime style. After a year with the 76ers in which he couldn’t find his career or his groove offensively, the Thunder schemes on that end of the floor seem to fit him well.
“Those are the pictures I love to take. Our offense, it just fits the way I want to play. ”
Historically, Horford has never been a boy who takes a lot of pictures in a particular game, maybe this is the year that could change. From an offensive standpoint, he has to be really heavy on this young, rebuilding Thunder team.
Basketball without position
From top to bottom, Oklahoma City’s roster is built to play without position. Their guards are long and versatile, while their bigs fit the modern NBA and have the ability to handle the ball and place it on the floor. Because of this, the Thunder will be able to play a fast paced game style without setting.
This fits the new Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault’s logo of playing with “space and speed”. It’s really shown through Oklahoma City’s three preseason games, as almost every guy on the regular roster brought the ball up the floor at some point. When the Thunder pulls down a rebound, it’s time to push a ball up the floor, no matter who does it.
Several members of the team have adopted this style of play and have enjoyed it to this point. Thunder forward Darius Bazley and Isaiah Roby have both commented throughout training camp on how they like to play fast and without offense.
As the NBA moves into this style of play across the league, the Oklahoma City Thunder seems to be getting ahead of the curve and building out a multi-tasking team.