Three takeaways: Young Thunder players ice game vs. Nuggets starters

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With the Thunder holding an eight-point lead with just under nine minutes left to play, Nuggets star Nikola Jokic checked back in the game and immediately assisted a 3-pointer. With an OKC court consisting of a rookie, three second-year players and one third-year player, Denver was in position to come back.

But Gabriel Deck answered with a 3-pointer of his own, and the Thunder lead would never again sink lower than five. Oklahoma City took the 108-99 win, its first victory of the preseason, with its young players icing the game against the Nuggets starters.

It was an impressive and surprising performance from the group of bench players, many of whom were on the Thunder team that struggled so much without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last year.

“In the last two to three minutes, we were just trying to slow the game down,” said rookie Josh Giddey, according to Thunder reporter Nick Gallo. “For us young guys to close it out, it’s a good learning experience.”

Darius Bazley, who had a team-high 16 points in 27 minutes, was among the six Thunder players who reached double-digit points.

The offense was efficient, but perhaps the biggest reason of the win was the defense that had a massive turnaround since the loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Here are three takeaways from the win.

Defensive shift

The Bucks scored 48 points in the first quarter alone against the Thunder on Sunday. There was a massive shift in defensive presence from the end of that game to the beginning of Wednesday.

Over the course the night, the Nuggets shot just 40% from the field and 25% from 3. Jokic (8-for-11) and Jeff Green (5-for-8) were the only two players to shoot at least 50% from the field.

Any success that the Thunder may have this season will start on that end of the court. What gets overlooked from last season is how solid their defense was in the first half of the year. It was competitive, for the most part. It wasn’t until later in the season that OKC started giving up buckets with minimal pressure.

But the Thunder crushed it on that end of the court tonight, even with so many rookies and young players getting so much playing time.

Shot location

Here is every Thunder point in the third quarter, a 12-minute period in which they started with a five-point lead and got it as high as 14 (distances courtesy of ESPN):

  • Isaiah Roby 23-foot 3-pointer

  • Roby dunk

  • Roby 30-foot 3-pointer

  • Giddey four-foot shot

  • One Lu Dort free throw

  • Dort 30-foot 3-pointer

  • Dort 30-foot 3-pointer

  • Bazley four-foot shot

  • Giddey layup

  • One Gilgeous-Alexander free throw

  • Two Jeremiah Robinson-Earl free throws

  • Two Dort free throws

  • Gilgeous-Alexander 27-foot 3-pointer

  • Aleksej Pokusevski jumper

Notice a trend?

If you need a clearer picture, here’s ESPN’s shot chart:

Look at how modern that offense is! Beyond the jumper at the free throw line, every single shot was either deep in the paint or beyond the 3-point line. It’s Houston Rockets-level of modern. You’re either making a shot inside or attempting one from 3, because those are the best shots to take.

And the Thunder made them at a high clip, too. Over the entire game, the Thunder shot 48.8% from the field and 38.2% from 3, which allowed them to go on runs that ended up steamrolling the Nuggets.

It was an excellent night on the offensive end of the court.

Darius Bazley's first quarter

Bazley’s impact wasn’t simply leading the team in points. His first-quarter outburst allowed the Thunder to come back from an early deficit and take the lead before the frame was over.

He made all four field goals he attempted, hit a pair of threes and was fouled on another 3-point attempt, finishing with 13 points in that quarter alone.

He assisted a Lu Dort 3 and got a steal that led to a pair of Isaiah Roby free throws in transition.

He also had four rebounds, two of which directly led to Thunder points.

Bazley scored or assisted 14 of the Thunder’s first 19 points and helped them roar back from an 11-3 deficit (those three points had been Bazley free throws) to what ended up being a 29-23 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Against the Bucks, Dort was on fire early. This time, it was Bazley. If Oklahoma City can continue finding players who hit their shots early — even if that player changes from night to night — the team can find some help around Gilgeous-Alexander.

Other notable performances

Derrick Favors played for the first time in a Thunder uniform. He got the start and posted 10 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes of play. He went 5-for-7 from the field and attempted a 3-pointer.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had nine points, four assists and three rebounds in 27 minutes.

Giddey, Dort and Roby all scored 14 points. Giddey was a team-high plus-16 on the night while Roby, Bazley and Gilgeous-Alexander were all plus-14.

Tre Mann scored a dozen points in 17 minutes of play.

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