(Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder)

The Drive and Dish | Jan. 18, 2024

A Division Battle in Utah

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com

Continuing the road trip, transferring practice to the game, touchdown passes and more! 

The Drive and Dish is here to answer the questions that might be going through your head during a Thunder game by providing experienced insight, highlighting aspects of the game you might have missed and pulling you behind the curtain with anecdotes, analysis, and stats.   

Here’s what you need to know as the Thunder continues a four-game Western Conference road swing with a game against the red-hot Utah Jazz. 

Transferring Practice into the Game

Throughout an NBA season teams must digest the way opponents are guarding them and come up with counters to those defensive schemes. Practice is hard to come by in a month like January where the Thunder is playing 17 games with five sets of back-to-backs, so the team makes the most of its shootaround sessions. 

At one recent shootaround, the Thunder worked on a few screening counters to create advantage opportunities and over the ensuing week the team implemented those wrinkles into game action with success. Against Portland, the Thunder manufactured a Chet Holmgren catch and shoot three on the right wing by Cason Wallace moving into the elbow to quickly screen Holmgren’s man. 

A wrinkle on that flare screen happened on Tuesday in a tough contest against the LA Clippers, when Chet was able to make a catch off a similar action by Dort. With an extra bit of space, Holmgren juked converging Clippers defenders and got all the way to the rim for an easy, but well-earned and well-practiced bucket. 

Transition Defense Recovery

The night before the Thunder fell to the Clippers it was in another hard-fought battle against the Los Angeles Lakers. Combating the Hall of Fame presences of LeBron James and Anthony Davis took a massive amount of grit by the Thunder, who wrapped up a stretch of five games in seven nights during the visit to Los Angeles. Setting an early tenor to the low-scoring affair was Kenrich Williams, who raced back in transition defense and completely disrupted the dribble of Rui Hachimura, which resulted in a Lakers turnover. 

Last week in Miami there were a pair of similar transition defense plays that helped turn the tide of the game, both in the third quarter. The Thunder tracked back and forced Bam Adebayo to lose the ball early in the period, but in the final five seconds of the third quarter it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander making a deflection that resulted in a crucial swing in a challenging come from behind victory. 

Shai, who leads the NBA in deflections per game, face guarded his man on a baseline out of bounds play with 4.9 seconds left in the third, then sprang into action and deflected the ball out of bounds off of Miami’s Duncan Robinson. The turnover led to two free throws by Jalen Williams and helped spearhead a 17-0 Thunder run that spanned the end of the third and start of the fourth quarter and eventually an eight-point win. 

A 9 Route from #3 to #8 

Outlet passes are an art form developed decades ago in the NBA and constantly reinvented by modern players. The Thunder has a 6-foot-9 guard in Josh Giddey who has a unique relationship to passing the ball. He can rifle them cross court, make the simple one, lob in a pass off a sideline out of bounds play or as he showed last Thursday against Portland, throw a 30-yard touchdown pass with incredible accuracy. 

The Thunder has seen some great outlet passes this year, including a Holmgren dish in Miami to Cason Wallace who then lofted the ball up in the air to Jalen Williams for an alley-oop dunk. The pass by Giddey against Portland, however, was in a league of its own. Truly, it looked like a football throw. 

Instantly after snaring a defensive rebound under the rim, Giddey set his hips and fired a one-handed pass down the right sideline to a streaking JDub, who was doing his best impression of a wide receiver on a go route. Giddey hit Williams right in stride – so much so that the second-year forward didn’t even have to dribble before immediately going up to the rim for a layup. 

The bucket brought the Paycom Center crowd to its feet and was one of the final moments the Thunder starters played in OKC’s team record-setting 62-point victory over the Trail Blazers. 

Micić Settling In 

After a couple of months of “getting used to the speed of the pitching” as Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault described it, 30-year-old rookie Vasilije Micić has settled in nicely into a role off the bench as a secondary playmaker and ball mover. He’s been particularly adept at playing out of closeouts – attacking recovering defenders after receiving a pass – and just making the next play. Twice recently, against Miami and Portland, he made no-look passes that froze the defense and set up a teammate for a wide-open bucket. 

In a grinding home win over Orlando, Micić was especially impactful in his second quarter minutes. He hit a tough step-back 3, attacked hard to the rim to score and made a physical play off the ball to screen his own defender to open up room in the lane for Holmgren to complete a lob dunk. In the fourth quarter, when the Thunder was trying to once again keep Orlando at bay in a 12-point win, it was Micić who dribbled decisively and forcefully through the right side of the lane and finished through contact at the rim. 

Looking Ahead to Utah

From the experience this young Thunder team has accumulated so far, it knows never to prepare for the opponent’s record or reputation, but to instead focus on executing against matchups and tendencies on every single possession. That mindset is exactly how the hungry Thunder will approach its second matchup of the year with the Utah Jazz. 

With a tall, rangy shooter and all-around scorer in Lauri Markkanen, a microwave scorer in Jordan Clarkson off the bench and a trio of young combo guards in Collin Sexton, Kris Dunn and Keyonte George, the Jazz are brimming with confidence at the moment. Winners of 9 of their last 10, including 6-straight, Utah poses a formidable challenge for the Thunder, who is in a stretch of 11 out of 14 games on the road. 

The Thunder will try to capitalize on some similar areas that fueled success in a 134-120 home win over Utah back in December when it led by as many as 38 points behind selfless, sustainable offense that generated high quality looks time and again. 

Tonight’s game in Salt Lake City starts at 8 p.m. CT, while Saturday’s game in Minnesota will begin at 7 pm. CT. Be sure to tune in on Bally Sports Oklahoma, follow along on our @okcthunder social accounts and stay here on the Thunder App or okcthunder.com

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