Thunder set to open 2019-20 NBA season

(Photo by Michael Kinney)

By Michael Kinney

After an offseason of upheaval and major roster changes, the Oklahoma City Thunder will tip-off its season this week. They will travel to Utah for its season opener Wednesday before returning home for their first home game Friday against Washington (7 p.m.).

There are a few key traits the Thunder will look for in the first few games.

“Transition and communication. That’s basically the biggest influences. Just like any other team,” Steven Adams said. “And you will probably get 50 positions in a game, you know, where it’s transition. You know, even like consider a transition. So obviously that will be our main focus for that, and then you will get into more of the smaller things, timing stuff, scouting sort of stuff. For the most part, yeah, transition and communication.”

Fans who were used to seeing Russell Westbrook for the past decade will now need to start to learn new names and faces. One of those is second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who says the 2019-20 version of the Thunder will be feisty.

“We play really unselfishly. We are going to have to be a grit team, a grind team that can defend,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We are obviously at our best when we can get in the fullcourt and can play fast. That’s our identity.”

Gilgeous-Alexander is expected to start in the backcourt along with veteran Chris Paul. Terrance Ferguson and Adams are also expected to be in the starting lineup.

The fifth starter could be anyone from Danilo Gallinari to Dennis Schroder to Andre Roberson, when he returns from an injury that has kept him off the floor for almost two years.

Regardless of who it is, Roberson says the squad is nowhere near where they need to be to compete in the Western Conference. But they have the making of one that can.

“We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of competitors. Our inexperience shows at times. I know it’s just preseason, but it’s good to see ourselves go against somebody else, which is different,” Roberson said. “We come back here every day, watch our film and kind of nitpick ourselves and see where we can get better. Granted we’re still trying to figure out who works together, what guys work together, what plays work for certain guys. It’s a learning process. It’s not going to be perfect right away. We’ve got time and we’re willing to use it.”

The Thunder won’t be able to just ease into the season. They have one of if not the hardest schedule in the opening two months of the season.

After they face the Wizards, they host Golden State on Sunday (7 p.m.) before facing Westbrook, James Harden and the Houston Rockets on Monday.

They will end their first week of competition next Wednesday with the Portland Trail Blazers (7 p.m.), who essentially broke up the Thunder when they knocked Oklahoma City out of the playoffs last season.

“I’m excited about our team,” Paul said. “We’re going to go out to win every single night. It’s just building that camaraderie, just building that togetherness and making sure everyone understands that it doesn’t matter what everyone says on the outside, it matters what we do.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider

Sooners storm past Mountaineers

By Michael Kinney

After beating Texas in its biggest challenge of the year, some look at their game with West Virginia as a trap game. One of those contests where the team that is an overwhelming favorite is either looking ahead or still looking behind them.

In the past, this is something the Sooners had been guilty of when they drop games they shouldn’t have. But this OU squad is seemingly not going to fall for those old tricks anymore.

No. 5 Oklahoma rolled to a 52-14 victory over West Virginia Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Coach Riley always tells us to never take winning for granted,” sophomore fullback Jeremiah Hall said. “There are a lot of programs right now that are struggling or fighting to be where we are, so we understand and know that we have to get better. At the same time, we can only enjoy one game at a time and today we are going to celebrate with smiles on our faces.”

Oklahoma (7-0, 4-0) jumped on the scoreboard first on their second possession of the game. After Kennedy Brooks ran the OU offense down into the WVU territory, quarterback Jalen Hurts hit Hall for a 20-yard touchdown pass.

The Sooners liked it so much, on the next possession they drove 74 yards in just four plays. This time Hurts connected with Charleston Rambo for a 6-yard touchdown and a 14-0 advantage.

“We got ballers,” Rambo said. “Whoever is gonna touch the ball, they’re going to make a play. We just wait our turn.”

The Mountaineers used their special teams to answer back. Back up deep in their own territory, WVU turned a fake punt into a first down. That led to former Sooner and current WVU quarterback Austin Kendall throwing a touchdown and cutting the deficit to seven points.

However, touchdowns from Brooks and Hurts seemed to stop the WVU momentum and the Sooners looked like they were on the verge of running away with the game.

But with 20 seconds left in the first half, Kendall threw his second TD pass and OU led 28-14 at halftime.

The Sooners started the second half with another long scoring drive. It ended with Hurts strolling into the endzone after a 22 yard run.

But it was on the Sooner’s next possession that Hurts put the game away. He connected with Lee Morris for a 46-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. Hurts hit Morris in stride in the endzone.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Morris said. “Really, I didn’t know how close [the defender] was until the ball was in the air like I could just feel him getting closer and closer. Other than that, it was a dime by Jalen. I just had to fetch it.”

Kendall had opportunities throughout the day to do the same thing as the WVU receivers got behind the Oklahoma secondary. However, he often overthrew them and came away empty-handed.

The Sooner’s defense stuffed WVU on their first possession of the second half deep in the Mountaineers territory and was forced to punt. Punter Josh Growden was lined up in the endzone when Brayden Willis steamrolled through the middle of the line and blocked the punt.

The loose ball was recovered by Austin Stogner in the endzone for a TD and Oklahoma led 49-14.

“Honestly, every time we get a special teams play, we’re just pumped,” Willis said. “We try so hard on special teams that we want to just be part of the game. So every time we get a touchdown on special teams, it’s a big celebration.”

Except for the two first-half touchdown drives, the Oklahoma defense had a solid outing.  They held WVU to 242 total yards. That includes just 51 yards on the ground.

“We just wanted to make sure that momentum that they thought they had right before halftime, we got that back,” Brendan Radley-Hiles said. “They scored right before halftime so you make a play right before halftime, you go in [to the second half] with a little momentum, so we wanted to take everything out of their game plan as soon as possible.”

Oklahoma racked up 560 total yards. They averaged 9.6 yards per play.

Hurts finished the day 316 yards and three touchdowns on 16 of 17 passing. He became the third OU to complete at least 90% of his passes, throw for over 300 yards and throw for at least three TDs in a game.

Hurts also led the Sooners with 92 yards on the ground and another pair of scores.

Yet, Hurts said the Sooners are far from just how good they can be as a team.

” We don’t know what the ceiling is, no one knows. How we get to it, our peak, is going out there every day and practicing hard,” Hurts said. “I’ll say it again, having the right intent and approach to what we do, being eager, essentially starving for an opportunity to play. We just got to have that factor about us, we have to be hungry for every opportunity that we have and go out there and take advantage of our opportunities.”

Up next

The Sooners travel to Kansas State Saturday. Kick-off is set for 11 a.m., which will be their fifth straight early morning start.

Texas will challenge Oklahoma’s defense

 

By Michael Kinney

A year ago this week coach Lincoln Riley made a decision that he hoped would change the direction of his football program. After a crushing loss to Texas, Riley fired longtime defensive coordinator Mike Stoops.

When the season was over, Riley hired Alex Grinch to take over as the Sooner’s defensive coordinator. Now, after five weeks of warmups, Oklahoma fans will get to see this week why he was brought to the program.

No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 11 Texas will renew their rivalry Saturday at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It will be Grinch’s first shot at the Longhorns.

In last year’s October matchup, the Sooners allowed Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger to go wild as he accounted for five touchdowns. He ran for 84 yards and threw for 314 yards.

Grinch knows stopping the hard-charging, mobile Ehlinger will be key, especially along the goal line.

“There are other guys that are big. But he has a unique ability to find enough of a crease to create the pile moving forward,” Grinch said. “It’s why they are good at what they do and why they’ve had so much success.”

But Texas coach Tom Herman has seen some big changes in Sooner’s defense that could cause his Longhorns problems.

“In the couple of hours that I’ve watched them, they are really, really flying to the football. Not extremely complex in terms of coverage structure but they are in the right place, not very many busts,” Herman said. “Not turning guys loose. The thing that’s a bit unique is the multiplicity of their defensive front. Them stemming and moving and twisting on almost every snap, which is difficult on an offensive lineman, to be honest with you, to try to target a guy and all of a sudden he is moving on you… I’ve been impressed with Coach Grinch the short time, the level they are playing at right now.”

Texas comes into the matchup with only one loss on its resume. That was to a top-five ranked LSU squad.

However, they have been plagued by injuries this season and have watched positions such as defensive back and running back be whittled down.

Yet, because the Red River Rivalry is one of those games that the record never seems to matter, Oklahoma coaches are making sure their players don’t get overconfident.

While this is Grinch’s first foray into the Red River Rivalry, it will be the last for several members of the Sooners. That includes defensive back Parnell Motley, who has some advice for the young players who’ve never played in the game before.

“I just tell the young guys to be yourself,” Motley said. “It’s a big game, but it’s more about us. There’s going to be some moments out there, going back and forth. But at the end of the day, just play your game. I’m just glad to have these young guys on board, to just be a part of this moment in OU-Texas. This is a great moment.”

Horns Down

For Oklahoma fans who get a kick out of seeing the Sooners pull out the ‘Horns down’ hand gesture after a big play, they may be out of luck this season.

Riley announced this week that his Sooners would not be doing the gesture under any circumstance because it could draw a taunting penalty.

“Yeah, we won’t,” Riley said. “Our players won’t do it. Yeah, our players won’t do it, just like the Big 12 [Championship] Game.”

Michael Kinney is a Freelance Content Provider

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