SAN FRANCISCO — It’s too soon to call this an arrival, too early to say the Thunder has announced something to the NBA.
OKC has yet to beat an NBA elite. It’s less than a week removed from laying an egg at Sacramento.
Even if the Thunder has whipped opposing defenses into an omelet since, the league’s season still is in its early morning phases.
So there’s a lot to like, including a 128-109 dismantling of the shorthanded Warriors on Thursday at Chase Center.
And also a long way to go.
“We got 70… 60… 69… (games left),” said Thunder center Chet Holmgren, a rookie who spent one year of college at Gonzaga.
(It’s 70, he was told.)
“I dropped out,” Holmgren said. “Can’t do math anymore.”
But you can put these numbers together.
The Thunder is 8-4, its best 12-game start since the 2012-13 team went 9-3 out of the gate. It ranks eighth in the NBA in offensive rating, and seventh in defensive rating. It’s outscoring opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark in the NBA.
“This team’s really well put together, well-coached, and they hammered us tonight,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
But we should pump the brakes, right?
These Warriors played without stars Steph Curry (out because he sprained a knee) and Draymond Green (suspended five games because he attempted a sleeper hold on Utah’s Rudy Gobert).
And last Sunday in Phoenix, OKC pulled away late from a Suns team sans star Devin Booker. It has played the 13th-toughest NBA schedule according to ESPN’s power ratings.
Grain of salt, right?
Still, the early returns are encouraging.
Take Thursday, for example, the first of the Thunder’s two games this week at Golden State. OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 24 points but struggled to find a rhythm — he shot 6 for 21 — as Golden State put big defenders between him and the rim, guarding Holmgren with smaller players.
The result was an offense that was sometimes murky, including to start the third quarter. With 2:43 to play in that frame, the Warriors had cut a 19-point lead to one and had a chance to take the lead on a Kevon Looney tip.
It missed, and the Thunder responded with a 10-2 run to close the third and a 94-85 lead to start the fourth.
In that run, Isaiah Joe buried one of the seven 3-pointers he made — without a miss — in 25 total minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander hit one of his three 3-pointers. Holmgren hit two free throws and a cutting dunk.
Golden State never got closer than eight points in the fourth quarter. It trailed by as many as 21.
“I thought we did a really good job when they went on their runs, we didn’t flinch,” Giddey said. “We bounced back. We stayed solid, and against a good team like this, they’re always gonna keep coming at you.”
Whether it was intentional or not, the “didn’t flinch” recalled the salad days of Thunder basketball.
“We never flinch” used to be an unofficial mantra of sorts, a catchphrase to summarize the way the Thunder weathered storms.
Let’s not get over our skis making that comparison.
It’s too soon for a group that’s the league’s second-youngest.
“We’re a young team, but these are challenges for any team,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “Any team has to have poise on the road. Any team’s going to drift at times. So we just want to hold ourselves to that standard.”
The Thunder has been living up to it lately.
In its past three games, all double-digit wins, OKC has outscored the Suns, Spurs and Warriors by 21.9 points per 100 possessions. That’s inflated by a 36-point home win over San Antonio, but it beat Phoenix and Golden State on the road by a combined 31 points.
It’s done that with a smothering defense. Those past three opponents have scored 98 points per 100 possessions. The league-worst full-season number through Thursday was 105.7.
But against Phoenix and Golden State, it also made timely shots and clutch buckets. And it’s gotten them from all over the court.
All seven of Joe’s 3-pointers Thursday were assisted. Most were clean looks, available because he had open space to play off star players. His sixth — a shot-fake and step-back — was perhaps the highest degree of difficulty, and by then it was too late to contest him.
“You just build a rhythm, build a rhythm over the course of the game,” Joe said. “Especially if you get the looks that I got tonight, that my teammates were able to set me up for. By the time that (sixth) one got there, was shooting into an ocean.”
Lately, OKC is awash in good options.
Six players scored in double figures against the Warriors, including two — Joe (23) and Cason Wallace (10) who did it off the bench. The Thunder bench scored 51 points.
It’s the product of an offense stacked with playmakers that moves the ball and plays essentially the same style no matter who enters the games.
OKC uses its guards to set screens more than any team in the NBA — “We do it every day” in practice, Gilgeous-Alexander said, and the Thunder can “put a lot of pressure on you,” Kerr said, with that unorthodox style. It makes guards defend pick-and-rolls, which usually falls to a big man.
There’s a tradeoff to that system, and it’s maybe the biggest, darkest cloud hanging over the Thunder.
It has excelled the past three games despite its opponents scoring 17.3 second-chance points per game. The Warriors got 27 of them Thursday to OKC’s six.
It’s an issue.
Things are running so smoothly this week that even the offensive rebounds are starting to look like some galaxy-brain strategy.
By deploying a starting lineup with four wing players — Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Lu Dort — along with the rail-thin Holmgren, you could suggest OKC is conceding some rebounds to wreak havoc at both ends.
Opponents are shooting 43.6% from the floor against the Thunder this season. Only Minnesota and Boston have held teams to lower percentages. Second-chance points are plentiful, but OKC is making it hard to score on the first chance.
So maybe this is what the Thunder is trying to do.
Maybe this 8-4 start isn’t despite a small lineup, but because of it. Maybe the defensive rebounding is overrated.
Or, you know, maybe not.
Holmgren called the rebound tradeoff “somewhat of a cop-out or excuse, I guess,” and rejected the premise the way he’s done so many shots.
“Yes, we have a lot of great playmakers out there on the floor, a lot of people who can make plays with the ball,” Holmgren said. “And because of that, our offense is doing really good early on in the season. And one of the downsides right now is we’re not rebounding as well as we need to be. But we’re not looking at it like that’s what just what it is. We’re looking at something that we have to be better at, and it’s going to take time figuring it out.”
But that, he said, is why you play 82 games.
Way too many remain to suggest the Thunder has made some significant leap.