2024 Playoffs: West First Round | Thunder (1) vs. Pelicans (8)

Thunder-Pelicans: 5 takeaways from Game 1 thriller

The Thunder defy their age in a 94-92 win in Game 1, while New Orleans discovers a dominant edge on the glass.

Relive the final thrilling minutes of Game 1 of the Pelicans vs. Thunder series.

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Blue and orange confetti filled the air at the buzzer while Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” blared inside Paycom Center, celebrating a 94-92 Oklahoma City win over New Orleans.

The festivities seemed excessive for Game 1 and the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. But the Thunder waited four years to reach this point.

Now on the tail end of a painstaking rebuild, OKC appears poised to compete on the postseason stage for years to come. The Game 1 triumph over the Pelicans represented a first for this young team, which on Sunday flashed grit and composure.

The Thunder became the eighth home team to win its postseason opener, marking the first time since 2013 that each home team emerged victorious in Game 1.

Here are five takeaways from the matchup:

1. Daigneault’s distinction proves true

Age-related questions flooded in furiously the day before Game 1, pushing OKC coach Mark Daigneault to explain why they’re insignificant for the Thunder in this first-round series.

“The age is just a number, and there’s a difference between youth and maturity,” he said. “If you’re 23 and mature, that’s a good thing. If you’re 53 and immature, you don’t have much time left to figure it out.”

It took OKC the better part of three quarters to find a halfway effective attack against the Pelicans. But over that span of gritty, rock-fight basketball, the Thunder might’ve proven Daigneault’s point.

Jalen Williams looked nothing like a 23-year-old second-year man playing in his first postseason series. Rookie Chet Holmgren tangled with the ferocity of a grizzled vet against the stouter Jonas Valanciunas.

Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, showed why he’s a Kia MVP finalist, playing solidly in the face of smothering defense from Herbert Jones that was only exacerbated by a game plan hellbent on stopping him.

OKC’s average age is 23.4, making it the youngest No. 1 seed in league history, according to StatMuse. Game 1 represented the first playoff outing for Williams, Holmgren and Josh Giddey, who combined for 36 points and 21 rebounds.

The game featured 13 ties and 20 lead changes. Still, OKC came through again in the clutch after finishing 24-14 in clutch games in the regular season.

2. Pelicans dominate offensive boards

It’s somewhat surprising Oklahoma City emerged victorious considering how New Orleans controlled the offensive glass.

One late sequence illustrated how close the Thunder came to potentially losing the game due to their defensive rebounding struggles. With 1:22 left in the contest and the score tied at 90, the Pelicans gobbled up three offensive boards, leading to three 3-point shot attempts and another miss near the basket.

That’s four missed opportunities for New Orleans with the game on the line.

Overall, the Pelicans finished with an 18-8 edge in offensive rebounds, which helped them outscore OKC 24-11 in second-chance points.

That disparity stuck out most over the first two quarters. New Orleans snatched six offensive rebounds for 16 second-chance points over that span compared to two OKC offensive rebounds for a pair of second-chance points.

Valanciunas finished with more offensive rebounds (nine) than the entire Thunder had (eight).

Expect these issues on the glass to continue for OKC. The Thunder ended the regular season ranked 27th in rebounds per game.

3. OKC headlines NBA awards finalists

Ernie, Charles, Kenny & Shaq reveal the trio of finalists for each of the 7 Kia NBA Performance Awards, live from Studio J.

The NBA announced finalists for the 2023-24 Kia NBA awards ahead of Sunday’s tipoff, and three OKC members made the cut for four of those trophies.

The league revealed Gilgeous-Alexander as a finalist for Kia MVP and Clutch Player of the Year, while Daigneault was announced as a finalist for NBA Coach of the Year. Just 10 days before his 22nd birthday, Holmgren was named a finalist for Kia NBA Rookie of the Year.

Gilgeous-Alexander dropped 28 points but had an off night shooting-wise (11-for-24), but made the game-deciding play with 32.5 seconds left by splashing a 13-foot floater while being fouled by McCollum. The 25-year-old drilled the ensuing free throw to put OKC ahead 93-92. Holmgren hit another free throw with 14 seconds left to end the game’s scoring.

Holmgren logged five blocks to go with his 15 points and 11 rebounds.

4. Zion Williamson’s absence looms large

Williamson missed Game 1 due to a hamstring injury suffered Wednesday at the Play-In Tournament and the expectation is he’ll be reevaluated in approximately 10 days. It’s unlikely Williamson will return during this first round.

What hurts New Orleans in this series without Williamson is that OKC can utilize Dort as an on-ball defender against Ingram. Dort’s physical defense on Ingram made finding even an inch of separation Sunday on shot attempts a challenge.

Perhaps that’s why Ingram finished 5-for-17 shooting with 12 points.

“Let him do it,” Ingram said of Dort’s physical defense ahead of Wednesday’s Game 2 (9:30 ET, TNT). “I’ll be ready.”

Williamson played in a career-high 70 games this season, averaging a team-high 22.9 points. New Orleans owned a record of 8-5 without him, but appears better at maintaining spacing without the 2019 No. 1 overall pick on the floor.

Still, you can’t discount Williamson’s impact attacking the paint. The 23-year-old averaged 24.5 points in two meetings against the Thunder in the regular season on 45.9% from the field with 7.5 rebounds and 9.0 assists.

5. Thunder’s hot shooting cools

Oklahoma City knocked down 50% or better in 42 games during the regular season, setting a record for the most such outings in a single season in franchise history and third most in the NBA for the 2023-24 campaign.

Naturally, you’d expect similar numbers in this high-stakes matchup. That didn’t happen.

Credit New Orleans’ defense led by Jones, Valanciunas, Trey Murphy III and Brandon Ingram. The Pelicans limited OKC to 43.5% from the field. In the first quarter, the Thunder shot 35% overall and 22.2% on 3-pointers.

Interestingly, the Thunder ended the regular season ranked in the top three in the NBA in field-goal percentage (tied for second, 49.9%), free-throw percentage (tied for third, 82.5%) and 3-point percentage (first, 38.9%). No other team in the league finished the season ranked in the top five in all three categories.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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