“I was actually surprised the first shot was that wide open,” Anthony said. “Just happy it went in, got that first shot out of the way and was able to focus on the rest of the game.”
Then he missed his next seven shots. But like the rest of the Thunder, it was a slow burn as Anthony revved up in the second quarter and into the third, scoring 22 on 8-of-20 shooting in a 105-84 win over the New York Knicks on opening night.
For Anthony, playing the Knicks was an ideal way for him to move on and find some closure from his messy, chaotic departure from New York.
“Yeah, that chapter’s closed. That chapter’s closed. No more Knicks talk,” Anthony said. “We can just focus on the Thunder and moving forward and what we have to do as a team and organization. I can say that chapter’s closed.”
The next chapter is an invigorating one for Anthony, joining All-Stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook, who both showcased their firepower as the Thunder broke lose of the overmatched Knicks, relying on a suffocating defense that forced 26 turnovers.
George finished with 28 on 9-of-23 shooting, hitting six 3-pointers, while Westbrook picked up where he left off in his historic MVP season notching the first triple-double of this season with 21 points, 10 rebounds and 16 assists.
“You guys are used to it. I’m used to watching it. I’m used to going up against it. To now be on the other side of that, be on the same team and reap those benefits of what he brings to the game, I’m excited about what we started out tonight, what we created tonight and where we’re headed.”
Westbrook spent last season running the Thunder virtually single-handily, compiling the highest usage rate in NBA history and leading the team in all three major categories (points, rebounds and assists). Something coach Billy Donovan has repeated throughout training camp is Westbrook’s ability to adapt and adjust his game for the betterment of the team, which, as Donovan noted, was on display against the Knicks.
“There’s nobody that can stay in front of Russ,” George said. “He’s always going to attract two [defenders], he’s always going to have the defense collapsing. A lot of times I’m going to be catching it wide open and more times than not I’ve got to make them pay for it.”
It was noticeable, especially in the first half, that Westbrook was intent on making plays for George and Anthony, putting his own attempts aside. Westbrook was steady and controlled commanding the Thunder’s attack, picking his spots and at times even looking, gasp, passive. Last season, Westbrook led the Thunder in shot attempts 78 times in 81 appearances. On Thursday, George and Anthony attempted 11 and 8 more shots than Westbrook, respectively.
“We’re just getting started,” Westbrook said. “We’re trying to figure it out and I’m just going to constantly keep pushing and finding those guys and obviously that makes it easy for me with those guys on the floor.”
The Thunder’s offense lacked some flow during portions of the game, with some my-turn, your-turn elements creeping in for the three stars. But it was also a case of missed shots, as George and Anthony both misfired on a number of clean looks, particularly in the first half.
“Offensively it’s on us to make those shots. I think for myself, if I can speak for PG, we’ve got to get used to those shots,” Anthony said. “We’re not used to having open looks like that, being wide open for shots like that. We’ve got to get comfortable with that and those shots. Those shots will fall.”
Westbrook cautioned during training camp of overreacting to some ragged offense early in the season, but balance does appear to be something to keep an eye on. In the first half, Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 44 of the Thunder’s 53 points, and attempted 35 of their 44 total shots. The second half featured a bit more flow as three attempted 20 of their 56.
“I thought we played offensively in terms of just [being] more fluid in the second half,” Billy Donovan said. “But the biggest thing for us was our defense.”
The Thunder, who talked throughout the preseason of their goal to be the top defensive team in the league, suffocated the young Knicks and forced 26 turnovers, including 14 steals. They pushed their lead to 11 right before half as George beat the buzzer on a dunk following a steal by Andre Roberson and carried that boost into the third, swarming the Knicks and methodically building a lead to as much as 23.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on, our defense leading to our offense and holding teams under 100 points,” Roberson said. “Like we talked about all preseason long, trying to be the No. 1 defensive team.”
For the three Thunder stars, the first time out went mostly according to plan. Westbrook was dynamic, George and Anthony got plenty of clean looks, and the defense was athletic and smothering, anchored by Roberson and Steven Adams. It’s only one of 82, but with Anthony playing the Knicks and the debut of the new Thunder, the arena thumped with energy as OKC flashed a glimpse of its firepower.
“Oh man, it was crazy,” George said of the atmosphere. “I thought the first preseason game here was nuts. I thought that’s what ‘Loud City’ was, but obviously it can get louder. I’m looking forward to it, the next 41 of these. And then, when we get in the playoffs.”