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NBA PREVIEW : Paul George’s return fuels high expectations for Thunder

By CLIFF BRUNT, AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George is back, and so are the high hopes be brought when he joined the Thunder.
Oklahoma City acquired George last year in the deal that sent rising star Victor Oladipo to the Indiana Pacers. It was thought by many that Oklahoma might be just a detour on George’s road home to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers. Instead, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder made a winning sales pitch. George, an All-Star and one of the league’s best two-way players, shocked many by staying instead of leaving in free agency.
“I just developed these really good relationships here, almost feeling like I’ve been here for a while,” George said. “And then just over the course of the whole season, it just steamrolled, just got better and better, and here I am.”
George’s return is fueling hopes that Oklahoma City can improve on a disappointing, inconsistent season that ended with a first-round playoff exit.
“I just think we worked through a lot in one year, and people expected us to be a lot further along,” George said. “But honestly, that’s the reason why I’m here for year two. I knew it wasn’t going to be something that happened in one year being with this group. You’ve got to build certain habits, and that’s the habits we’re hoping that we build, is that consistency.”
The Thunder traded Carmelo Anthony during the summer in a deal that brought guard Dennis Schroder from the Atlanta Hawks. Schroder, who averaged 19.4 points and 6.2 assists last season, has been dynamic during the preseason.
“Obviously Dennis is a great player,” Westbrook said. “Done a lot of great things in Atlanta. Plays fast, plays with pace, good with the basketball, and I think it’s going to open up a lot of different things for him and myself when we’re on the floor together, so looking forward to it.”
Thunder guard Andre Roberson, one of the league’s top perimeter defenders, will be out for at least two months following a procedure as he recovers from the torn left patellar tendon that cost him the second half of last season. Oklahoma City’s defense suffered without him last season, but Schroder could make up for his absence with his athleticism and scoring prowess.
George acknowledged that things didn’t go as planned with Anthony, who struggled at times last season. Anthony is now with Houston, and Oklahoma City has become younger and faster.
“We miss Melo here as a teammate, as a brother, but if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” George said. “It’s nothing that he did, it’s nothing that the organization did, nothing that the coaches did. If something doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work, and that’s fine. We’ve got to be able to move on from that, and he’s in a better situation for him, and we’ve got to move on and get prepared as a team.”
The Thunder also kept versatile, ultra-athletic forward Jerami Grant. He can play the forward spots and even center if the Thunder choose to go small. George considers Grant a key piece to Oklahoma City’s puzzle.
“J.G. is one of those special players I think that you need on a team to make a team special. Every team needs that one guy that can do a little bit of everything, and J.G. is that guy,” George said. “You can plug J.G. in at any spot, and he’s going to come out with some special plays for us.”
The Thunder added Nerlens Noel as a backup center. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft who most recently played for Dallas is a rangy, mobile defender and a capable finisher around the basket. Oklahoma City will be able to play fast with a legitimate rim protector while he is in games.
The Thunder open the season in Oakland against Kevin Durant and the champion Golden State Warriors on Oct. 16. It’s the ultimate early test to see how much the Thunder have progressed, and perhaps how far they have yet to go.

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