By Randy Renner, Senior Writer
It’s been a long time since the Thunder have been on the low side of an opening night score in Oklahoma City .
In fact you have to go all the way back to the very first Thunder opening night when the Milwaukee Bucks spoiled the fun. Since then the Thunder have won seven straight home openers and with Wednesday’s 103-97 win at Philadelphia in the books, OKC is 6-3 in season openers.
Tonight, the guy who ran the offense for the Thunder in that very first opening night will be back in the building. Former point guard Earl Watson is now the head coach of the Phoenix Suns a team Billy Donovan says will pose a different set of problems for the Thunder than the 76ers did.
“They have the ability to play small (with guards Eric Bledsoe, Devon Booker and Brandon Knight) they have the ability to go big (with centers Tyson Chandler and Alex Len) so a different (type) team than Philadelphia so it will be a challenge,” Donovan told reporters after Thursday’s practice.
Booker led the Suns with 18 points in their season opening 113-94 loss to Sacramento , a game that was ugly for Phoenix from the jump. The Suns were down by almost 20 at halftime and ended up with their biggest blowout loss ever in a season opener at home.
“I don’t know who that team was (Wednesday) night,” Watson told the Arizona Republic after his team’s defense allowed 51.2 percent shooting to a team missing its starting point guard. “But everything happens for a reason. So what we call a loss is a losing opportunity. Stay strong. We learn from it and we study it. We have the discipline to let it go.”
The Thunder had their own struggles Wednesday night in Philly but in the last 3:30 of the game the Thunder clawed back from behind, got a series of critical stops and hit a couple of huge shots to snatch the win.
The Thunder forced misses on five of Philadelphia’s last six shots.
“It was huge, especially on the road,” Russell Westbrook said. “To be able to do that on command is always good, to get stops when needed and to get big plays down the stretch is good.”
That OKC “D” held the Sixers to 42.9 percent shooting overall but just 35.7 percent in the second half and an even more stingy 30.0 percent in the 4th quarter.
“That was the key,” pointed out center Enes Kanter. “When you try to finish the fourth quarter, the most important thing isn’t the offense, it’s the defense. We were really locked in. Everybody was focused and did a good job.”
Philadelphia is the NBA’s youngest team (23.7 years) and the Suns are tied with Portland for the second youngest (24.5 years). In fact the Suns made NBA history Wednesday night by playing three teenagers (Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender). Another teen, Derrick Jones Jr., is also on the roster making the Suns the first team in NBA history with four teenagers.
The three youngsters who played were largely responsible for bringing the Suns back in the second half against Sacramento. Tonight Watson will be looking for a more balanced effort between the teenagers and the veterans.
For the Thunder Donovan would love to see some of what happened in Philadelphia happen again tonight. OKC did a great job taking care of the ball with just 10 turnovers. Phoenix ranked 2nd on the NBA during the preseason by averaging 22 forced turnovers a game and 5th in the league with 11.3 steals per game.
The opening regular season game against Sacramento the Suns managed just six steals and 13 forced turnovers, if the Thunder can hold their numbers to something like that tonight it will be a success.
It would also be nice if some shots would fall for Victor Oladipo because at times against the Sixers, especially in the first half, his struggles on offense seemed to distract him from what he needed to do on defense. Against the Suns ultra quick guards that could prove problematic.
“You can get so wrapped up in your offense, and he clearly didn’t have a great shooting night, he was 4-for-16, but there’s so many more things that he can do,” Donovan said.
Oladipo made a couple of huge plays in the closing seconds Wednesday night and for a team like the Thunder, where many games will come down to the wire, those types of plays will be the difference between winning and losing.
Thunder Alley will open this afternoon at 4 o’clock and remember road construction continues around the arena and the Cox Center so you might want to leave for the game a bit earlier than normal.
Tipoff is set for 7:10 and you can see the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma.