Give the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers credit. Given an exhibition setting thousands of miles away from home, a preseason contest pitched in the middle of the afternoon when broadcast stateside, the two teams came out with an entertaining brand of hoop in Oklahoma City’s 103-99 win. Preseason rustiness, injuries to key players, and Philadelphia’s overall awfulness led to a sloppy back and forth, but the two teams ran, kept things interesting with small-ball lineups, and genuinely provided an entertaining contest for Manchester’s Phones 4u Arena.
Yes, it was an exhibition affair, one that pitted two disparate teams that may very well finish with the best and worst records in the NBA this season, but the squads should be applauded for pushing the ball at just about every opportunity, giving the fans somewhat of a soccer-styled (lots of running, not a lot of scoring) experience. That sort of comparison may come off a bit lacking, but England isn’t exactly basketball-mad – and with little obvious reason to side with either Oklahoma City or Philadelphia, the attendees had to make do with what they were presented with.
Luckily, despite a rash of October-level turnovers (39 combined between the two teams), the small lineups and insistence on pushing the ball made this an intriguing matchup from the start. Kevin Durant, all alone as his team’s undisputed leader and creator with All-Star guard Russell Westbrook’s recent setback, came out looking to create early on, registering seven assists by halftime before settling into his shooting groove in the second half. Durant finished with 21 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds in the win, playing a surprising 33 minutes before hitting the bench for good in the fourth quarter.
The 76ers stayed in the contest because of their work from behind the 3-point arc, nailing six of 13 in the first half and 12 of 30 overall for a 40 percent mark. Rookie coach Brett Brown often ran several ball-handlers at once, utilizing the speed and derring-do of fellow rookie Michael Carter-Williams and hungry second-year guard Tony Wroten alongside minor league pickup Darius Morris. Wroten finished with a team-high 20 points off the Sixer bench, nailing half of his 3-point shots along the way. Brown’s team had the ball moving in its incessant attack, and though no 76er finished with over four assists, the team managed an impressive 25 dimes on 34 field goals.
Though OKC’s perimeter and transition defense left a lot to be desired, the team still rejected 11 shots, while dominating the offensive glass against a tiny 76ers attack. With starting center Kendrick Perkins out with a dislocated finger, rookie Stephen Adams stepped up with a solid start in the pivot – the New Zealand product finished with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in just under 17 minutes, moving his feet well on both ends.
This was Durant’s game, though. The Thunder clearly came out expecting the lowly 76ers to eventually go pear-shaped in the face of a more accomplished OKC squad, but Philly hung in there throughout. As a result, Kevin Durant had to keep the technical “home” team at arm’s length, nailing a series of step-back jumpers and looking to keep his teammates engaged with extra passes that he may have forced at times. In the preseason, though, those forces are beside the point – Durant is preparing to connect on these dishes in June, not caring about a sloppy turn in October, as he looks to provide another wrinkle to a Thunder offense that has a history of going stagnant in the postseason.
Serge Ibaka contributed three of those blocked shots, while showing great confidence in his perimeter touch and even tossing in a pair of jump hooks down low. Reggie Jackson also impressed, contributing a team high 29 points, looking quite aggressive on both ends on his way to a Westbrook-like eight assists and six rebounds. Jeremy Lamb, unfortunately for Thunder fans, looked hesitant and unsure on his way to 2-of-12 shooting – including an ohfer eight from long range. Derek Fisher, thankfully, did not dress.
Even for two teams with no obvious ties to Manchester (no word on if Oklahoma City’s Perry Jones is an ardent Stone Roses fan), the 13,000-some in attendance did get quite the show. Durant’s brilliance, the breakneck pace, the relatively quick turn (the game lasted just 2:11), and competitive finish (this was a one or two possession game until the very end) all contributed to a sound showing for an exhibition game.
Gimmicks and big names alone won’t turn basketball into a top-five sport in England (though one of the NBA’s best analysts, SB Nation’s Mark Deeks, is from Great Britain), and it was good to see the NBA wasn’t exactly pandering (though the arena’s public-address announcer came off a bit daft) to its potential new fan base. The crowd was enthused, as much as one could be in the face of two teams without English ties, working through the warm-up phase of a long NBA season.
The 76ers? They may struggle to top double-digit wins this year, but if this keeps up they’ll at least be a fun watch.
(Well, let’s face it, we might as well write “Kevin Durant” instead.)
Kevin Durant? He’s not bowing down to anyone in Russell Westbrook’s absence. His teammates’ hands better be ready.