By Ryan Costello
Hours before the Oklahoma City Thunder’s annual blue and white scrimmage in Yukon, OK on Friday evening, head coach Scott Brooks promised fans could expect an intense, competitive game.
His team delivered on every bit of that promise to a capacity crowd of 3,500 in the Yukon High School gym.
Aside from the running clock and ten minute quarters, the tightly contested scrimmage featured just about everything a fan looks for in a regular season matchup. There were hard fouls, tough defense, diving hustle plays, and even a bit of massaging the refs up and down the court.
“We have a responsibility as a man on this team to bring effort every day, it’s what they do. We talk about it constantly,” Brooks said.
It might have been easier to just have a fan-pleasing dunk contest, but that’s not why Brooks and company made the short trip west on I-40.
“With all the fun activities surrounding the building and inside with the atmosphere here, it could have easily been like an all-star game atmosphere, but we got something out of tonight’s practice,” Brooks said.
A Big Night for Jeff Green
No, the season is still a little ways off, and the Thunder hasn’t even tipped off in the preseason yet, but make no mistake, this was a huge game for Jeff Green.
This was the first time Green played in front of the Thunder faithful since his underwhelming performance against the Lakers in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
The first three quarters were up and down for Green.
He communicated well and was active on the defensive end, including a shift into a perfect trap on the left wing that led to a turnover and another instance where he physically ushered Byron Mullens out of bounds.
When Green was aggressive with the ball and drove the lane, he either converted or earned free throws on nearly every take, but the fourth-year pro missed every jump shot in the first three quarters, including three from beyond the arc.
Only in the fourth did Green begin to display his shooting touch and he hit on almost every attempt from mid to long range.
“He’s definitely a big part of our offense and when he makes [his threes], it puts a lot of doubt in the opponent’s mind,” Brooks said.
Green’s mid- and long range game figures to be one of the deciding factors in whether his ‘tweener status will end up in him being a stretch power forward in the starting lineup or an option off the bench for Oklahoma City.
When The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry asked Green about the high volume of three-pointers he took in the scrimmage, he offered a simple explanation: “I was open.”
Kevin Durant: Point Forward?
After leading the Thunder in rebounding (7.6) and the entire league in scoring (30.1) last season, Kevin Durant would seem to be adding another dimension to his game.
Durant made several passes that ended in good looks for his teammates, including a string of assists that ended in easy finishes for Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens in the second half.
“Kevin is a terrific playmaker,” Brooks boasted to the media. “Every year, we challenge him to get better in a lot of areas and he has. He’s come back a better defender and a better playmaker, the two things that we challenged every year since I’ve been here and every year, he’s improved a little bit.”
Brooks and company know now would be a good time for Durant to add the playmaking element to his game. After averaging 2.8 assists to 3.3 turnovers a game last season, it’s the only thing Durant’s skill set is missing.
“We expect another step out of Kevin and tonight he showed what we’ve been working on, and actually all camp long he’s been a terrific playmaker. He can score, but when he passes the ball, it really opens up his game offensively,” Brooks said.
The Other Millsap
Remember this name: Elijah Millsap.
After the Thunder was reportedly in the mix to sign Paul Millsap last summer, the team might have a roster spot for his younger brother this season.
After going undrafted out of UAB, the 23-year-old has made a huge impression on coaches and fellow players in Thunder camp.
“He’s very aggressive defensively. That’s what we like about what he brings to our team. He makes our camp very competitive,” Brooks said. “He’s not mistake free, but never, not one drill, not one day in practice that he did not come with 100 percent effort. That’s what he’s about, that’s what he brings to our team.”
Friday night’s scrimmage was no different.
If it was any indication as to the coaching staff’s faith in his defense, the 6’6” Millsap was assigned the tall order of checking 6’10” scoring champion Kevin Durant.
Twice Millsap stripped Durant of the ball, and though Durant did score his fair share, Millsap forced several altered shots and was an overall pesky matchup for the taller, longer Durant.
“He guards KD very well. There’s not a lot of guys that you can say that will guard him well, but he does a great job,” Brooks said.
Millsap was also assertive on the offensive end, driving the lane and earning free throws and scoring on the break.
“Elijah played amazing – getting out in the passing lanes, getting to the free throw line, getting out in transition. He played tremendous,” said Green, Millsap’s teammate on the white squad.
Other Game Notes
-Serge Ibaka seems to be developing a mid-range game. He was practicing an eighteen foot jumper at halftime and he hit the same shot three times during the game. “Serge is really one of our hardest working guys, and he’s really developing a midrange jump shot that you know when he shoots it, you’ve got a feeling that it’s gonna go in,” Brooks said. “None of the guys have any lack of confidence in his offensive ability, but it’s slowly getting better and we want to continue that pattern.”
-Byron Mullens looked to have taken some huge strides this offseason. He had several nice finishes at the basket and made some nice plays on defense, including a big block on a shot from the hands of Jeff Green around the free throw line. He simply looked stronger, faster, and more aware on the floor than at any other point in his young career.
-James Harden and Daequan Cook missed the scrimmage after butting heads in a practice earlier in the week, and would be re-evaluated over the weekend.
-Cole Aldrich didn’t look fast, but he didn’t look as slow as some have worried. He scored on a by the books pick-and-roll from Durant. It looked pretty, but it was against Longar Longar, who just isn’t an ideal example of an NBA defense. Otherwise, Aldrich looked like a rookie. Certainly not bad, but certainly not a finished product.
-Russell Westbrook and Durant looked anything but tired after a summer full of FIBA basketball.
-The blue team (Kevin Durant, Byron Mullens, Thabo Sefolosha, D.J. White, Cole Aldrich, Demond “Tweety” Carter, Jerome Dyson, Eric Maynor) beats white team (Mo Peterson, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Elijah Millsap, Longar Longar, Royal Ivey) 57-53.