For the first time ever, the Oklahoma City Thunder took the floor for a regular-season game without the services of Russell Westbrook.
Fortunately, they still had Kevin Durant.
The three-time NBA scoring champion poured in 42 points to lead the Thunder to a 101-98 win over a pesky Jazz squad Wednesday night in Utah.
Utah got off to a strong start, using strong 3-point shooting to take an early lead. Following a Richard Jefferson deep ball, Gordon Hayward drilled back to back treys to put the Jazz up 24-17 with 3:34 left in the first.
Oklahoma City recovered, ending the quarter on a 12-5 run to tie the game at 29-29.
Things remained tight for most of the second period, but with just one minute left in the half, OKC turned on the jets. Leading 50-48 with 54 seconds left, the Thunder got four free throws from Durant and a buzzer-beating 3-ball from Thabo Sefolosha to take a 57-48 lead into the half.
The first half was riddled with technical foul shots as the NBA began enforcing its new delay-of-game penalty. The league no longer allows players to touch the ball after a made basket (something players have done their entire lives) and it took the Thunder some serious getting used to. OKC was issued a warning, and then got T'd up on three separate occasions for violating the new policy. Players reacted with a predictable disdain for the strict enforcement of the policy.
The big difference in the first half was at the free-throw line. OKC hit 15 of 17 attempts and Durant hit all 12 of his. Utah hit 7-9.
The Thunder kept its 10-point stiff-arm until early in the fourth, when the Jazz finally got things together. OKC led 84-73 with 11 minutes remaining when the Jazz rattled off a 10-2 run to get within 86-83 with 8:33 to play. From that point it was tight until the end.
Two Durant free throws gave OKC a 97-92 lead with 37 second left, but Derrick Favors answered right back with a layup to cut it back to three. Alec Burks followed that with two free throws to cut it to 97-96 with 11 seconds to play, but the Thunder refused to miss.
Reggie Jackson dropped in two more from the line, followed by yet another Jazz layup. Then it was Durant's turn again. KD sank free throws No. 21 and 22 with just six seconds left to put OKC up three, and after Hayward's last-second three missed, the Thunder had finally secured 1-0.
Durant shot 22-24 from the line and added six rebounds to lead the way for OKC. Jackson and Sefolosha added 14 points apiece while Serge Ibaka added eight points and 10 rebounds. Nick Collison chipped in six off the Thunder bench while rookie Steven Adams added two points and three boards in his first official NBA action.
Burks' 24 points, six boards and six dimes led Utah, while Favors outplayed Ibaka, scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Enes Kanter added 14 points and 10 rebounds while Hayward finished with 12 points.
OKC shot just 40.7 percent from the floor, but drained 29-33 from the stripe. The Thunder won the turnover battle 22-13 and outscored the Jazz 25-14 on the fast break. Utah dominated in the paint, outscoring OKC 56-32 inside.
It wasn't always pretty, but coach Scott Brooks was plenty pleased with the opening-night win.
"I thought our guys battled," Brooks said. "We played much better defensively in the last three quarters, but I like what we did. First game, can't complain."
Brooks added that while the win is nice, there's plenty for his young group to improve on.
"We did a lot of good things out there but we also had a lot of things that we can watch tomorrow and work on."
The Thunder is back in action Friday night at Minnesota.
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