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Thunder win over Timberwolves is preseason's first dress rehearsal

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Timberwolves Thunder Basketball

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, left, shouts after scoring in the first quarter of an NBA basketball preseason game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Oklahoma City, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. Timberwolves Nemanja Bjelica (88) is at rear.

OKLAHOMA CITY — It wasn’t the Oklahoma City Thunder’s fault that it took this long. It was merely circumstance.

Nearly two weeks into preseason, the Thunder played real lineups for the first time. The result: A 112-94 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.

Yes, the Thunder had used real people before. Kaleb Tarczewski breathes the same oxygen as the rest of us. But the training camp invitee they so endearingly call “Zeus” is likely headed to the D-League once the season begins.

Sunday was significant because the Thunder actually used regular-season substitution patterns. 

“It was the first time we kinda played together,” coach Billy Donovan said.

Donovan limited minutes for his best players through the first three preseason games. And injuries prevented the Thunder from running regular-season-caliber lineups Thursday against the Memphis Grizzlies, when OKC had six players hurt. Five of them returned Sunday with only Cameron Payne unavailable because of the fractured bone in his right foot.

The minutes monitoring was down, too. And the Thunder put on the closest act to a dress rehearsal that they have this preseason.

“I think for [Westbrook] it was,” Donovan said when asked if this game was closer to regular-season action. “Just because that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to up his minutes.”

Westbrook played only 15 minutes against Memphis. He bumped to 30 against the Wolves. All of those came in the first three quarters. 

“I feel great,” he said. “Just trying to get back into the grove of things. I’m ready to go.”

Victor Oladipo went from 17 minutes Thursday to 27 Sunday. Steven Adams went from missing three straight games to busting out 20 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks in 22 minutes.

Before Alex Abrines exited the game with a right hip contusion, Donovan’s rotation consisted of starters Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Domantas Sabonis, and Adams, and reserves Enes Kanter, Abrines, Joffrey Lauvergne, Semaj Christon, and Ersan Ilyasova.

Kyle Singler replaced Abrines. Josh Huestis didn’t play. Ronnie Price, expected to be the backup, played with a bench unit during the fourth quarter after watching Christon assume backup point guard duties for the first three periods.

“It was more of just really trying to give Semaj an opportunity to play,” Donovan said of bringing Christon off the bench first. “He really hadn’t had much of an opportunity to play. I knew I was gonna play Ronnie some in the second half and just wanted to give Semaj a chance to go out there and play.”

Donovan gave us his the taste of lineup strategy at the 4:35 mark in the first quarter when he subbed Abrines and Kanter for Adams and Oladipo. It was a clear set-up to stagger the minutes of Westbrook and Oladipo, insuring that at least one of the two would be on the court at all times.

A couple of minutes later, Westbrook subbed out, and Oladipo re-entered. He ran the bench unit into the start of the second quarter before Westbrook returned with a little more than eight minutes left in the first half.

“We’re getting into the flow of things, trying to figure out different things we can use,” Westbrook said. “It was good.”

Staggering Westbrook’s and Oladipo’s minutes is a necessary move for Donovan given Payne’s status. With the team’s tertiary creator gone, there isn’t anyone else to step into that role. So, when Christon was in, the Thunder let Oladipo split the offense with him.

"I think the one thing with the staggering part is good, just in terms of it gives us another guy that generates offense with Enes out there,” Donovan said. "We’ll look to do some of that."

But Oladipo is still searching for comfort inside a second-unit lineup. And the rest of the team will need more than three quarters of dress-rehearsal basketball before it’s running smoothly.

“I still think we’re trying to figure each other out a little bit, but it’s gonna come,” Oladipo said. “We just gotta continue to keep building.”

Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the Locked on Thunder podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.

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