OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma City Thunder put their full starting five together for the first time this preseason, and it didn’t take long to get back to the level that carried them all the way to the NBA Finals a few months ago.
Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka scored 16 points apiece as the starters jumped out to a quick lead, then watched from the bench as the reserves closed out a 108-101 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.
James Harden returned from a strained left groin and also scored 16 in his usual sixth-man role. Kendrick Perkins played for the first time after wrist surgery and Thabo Sefolosha joined him in the starting lineup after a left quad contusion.
“The core group of guys are back, and I think that’s really important for us,” said Sefolosha, who played 20 minutes. “We’ve been practicing really hard and, of course, some guys are a little rusty. It was kind of a long summer.
“I think it shouldn’t take too long for us to get in the swing of it.”
Oklahoma City built a 19-point lead in the first half, only for the Nuggets to race back and take a one-point edge three times early in the fourth quarter. The Thunder stuck with their reserves and they were able to close it out against a mixture of Denver starters and backups.
“It feels good. We needed everybody to get back,” Ibaka said. “We needed it, especially with 11 days or 10 days until the start of the season.”
Oklahoma City has two more preseason games left, but coach Scott Brooks said he plans to rest Durant and possibly fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook on Tuesday night in Chicago. The Thunder also play the next night against Dallas in Wichita, Kan.
“It was the first time all of us were out there together since last year, and it felt great,” said Harden, who had missed the previous three exhibitions. “Now, we’ve just got to move forward and get better.”
Danilo Gallinari led the Nuggets with 26 points, and Ty Lawson added 17 points and 11 assists. Denver coach George Karl was also treating it as more than a chance to evaluate who’d make the roster, calling it the first exhibition that would be some “semblance of a regular-season game.”
“It’s time to start getting ready,” Karl said.
His Nuggets allowed the Thunder’s starting group to hit their first four shots and open a 13-2 lead in the first 4 1/2 minutes. They were equally effective on the other end, letting Denver make just two of its first 10 shots — blocking four of them — and causing four turnovers in the first 6 minutes.
Harden’s three-point play made it 49-30 with 5:59 left before halftime before the Nuggets cut it down to seven by halftime, on the strength of 8-for-10 shooting from 3-point range. They eventually roared all the way back to tie it at 81 with an 8-0 run to finish the third quarter, the final points coming on a series of three straight alley-oop dunks — two by JaVale McGee and one by Corey Brewer.
“This is a good test for us. There’s never a great loss, but we have some stuff to build on this week and I think it’ll push an urgency on our players to play better,” Karl said.
Among Denver’s tasks during the final two preseason games will be getting offseason acquisition Andre Iguodala more involved in the offense. The former Philadelphia star scored seven points in 37 minutes and is averaging 8.2 in the preseason.
“He had a great game, other than making shots. He rebounded well, he defended well and he passed well,” Karl said. “We’ve got to be more conscientious of getting better shots for him and finding him in a better rhythm, at a better place for him to touch the ball.”