(Jimmy Do | OKC Thunder)

Behind Late-Season Surge, OKC Blue Headed to the G League Finals

By Nick Gallo | okcthunder.com

Long bus rides, extensive airport layovers and roster uncertainty are among the many challenges every G League team faces throughout a season. As an enterprise, the G League is almost by design an opportunity to really test the mettle, the mental fortitude of the players who come through the program. 

So to be able to cut through all of the noise, the distraction and the fatigue and to not only crash the playoff party but sweep through the first three rounds on the way to the G League Finals is a feat of both resilience and poise. That’s exactly what the Thunder’s G League affiliate the Oklahoma City Blue has done this spring, ripping off an incredible run after the All-Star break where in the team won 12 of its final 14 regular season games to turn around a 9-11 campaign and surge to the 3rd Seed in the Western Conference and now onto the Finals to face the Maine Red Claws starting on the road on Tuesday. The Blue will host Game 2 of the series on Thursday April 11. 

Once in the playoffs, the Blue has euro-stepped and alley-ooped its way through exhilarating battles with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Sioux Falls Skyforce and the Stockton Kings. The first round was the most harrowing, as the Blue went to overtime against the Houston Rockets’ affiliate and came away victorious as 2022 Thunder lottery pick Ousmane Dieng iced the game with a powerful eurostep finish on the left side for a game-winning runner. 

Three days later, the Blue had completed its trek up Sioux Falls, N.D. to take on the Miami Heat’s G League squad in the Skyforce. Two-way center Olivier Sarr dominated in the interior as he’s done all season, putting together yet another double-double with 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocked shots. All season long, the French connection has been in place, with Dieng serving as a ballhandler and dishing to Sarr over the top for alley-oop jams. 

On Sunday in the Western Conference Finals all the way across the Rockies was the Blue’s next challenge, the Stockton Kings. After falling behind by double-digits at the end of the first quarter, the Blue rallied back with an offensive explosion in the second by racking up 42 points in that quarter alone. In the closing minutes, with Stockton chipping away at the lead, Dieng and two-way guard Adam Flagler combined for four consecutive free throws inside the final 20 seconds to seal the Blue’s 114-107 victory.

On assignment from the Thunder, Dieng has been with the Blue for the vast majority of the 2024 calendar year thus far. With more responsibility on the ball as the team’s de-facto 6-foot-10 point guard, Dieng has been highly productive and has demonstrated an elevated level of physicality and toughness. Since late January he’s only had one game with fewer than 5 rebounds and only one game with fewer than 5 assists. He’s scored in double figures in all but two games all season, and in the 2023-24 regular season with the Blue he’s averaged 17.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 48 percent shooting from the field. 

“If you take any part of [Dieng’s] game that he's been working on and you look back a year, you're gonna see a completely different player,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “He's obviously made a lot of progress in along in a, you know, over the course of that time.” 

Fellow Thunder draft pick Keyontae Johnson has also been an integral part of the group. He was named to the G League’s Up Next Game at All-Star Weekend back in February and has been a diligent worker throughout the season as he honed-in on his development program. For years the Thunder has been on the cutting edge of getting the most out of its G League affiliate, including moving the team to Oklahoma City to make sure the program could be as intimately connected to the Thunder as possible. Johnson has been a beneficiary of that intentionality. 

“I have a lot of respect for how he's handled himself up until this point and he's gotten better as a result of that approach,” said Daigneault. “He's just got a great spirit of humility and hard work. He's a blue collar guy player.”

On the season, Johnson has averaged nearly 20 points per game on 53 percent shooting and 39 percent marksmanship from behind the three-point line. At the helm for the Blue is a former member of the team, Kam Woods. True to the identity of the Thunder’s intentions with the Blue, Woods earned his stripes as a professional as both a player and a staff member with the Blue and has now helped guide the group to a 

“[Woods] is an intelligent guy,” said Daigneault. “He's got great principles, he's got a great feel for the game and he has a great feel for fundamentals.”

After all, teaching the fundamentals is an integral part of the Blue’s core responsibility as its staff walks alongside the players in their development journeys. Starting on Tuesday, the Blue will have a chance to lean on those fundamentals once again to try and win the Thunder organization’s first-ever G League championship.