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(Jimmy Do | OKC Thunder)

The Drive and Dish | Feb. 8, 2024

Dort’s Determination, Everybody’s Ready

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

Controlling the Controllables, Outlasting the Opposition, Moments that Matter 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 gets a chance to catch its breath with a few days between games.

Closing Quarters, Controllables vs. Shot Making in Utah

In Utah, with a rabid home crowd at its back, the Jazz summoned some extra juice in the closing minutes of the third and fourth quarters and delivered incredible shot-making in the clutch.

Two threes by Keyonte George and a pair of jumpers from Lauri Markkanen, all tightly contested, were the difference late as the Jazz used a 12-4 run to push past the Thunder 124-117. That mimicked a quarter-closing trend from throughout the night – the Thunder closed the first quarter and second quarter on 12-2 and 8-2 runs and had a seven-point lead at the half. In the third quarter the Jazz ripped off 14-straight to close the frame before its final push in the fourth to secure a seven-point win. 

According to Mark Daigneault and players after the game, however, it wasn’t the finish to the fourth or crunch-time shot-making that was the difference in the game - the Thunder shot it at a blistering 51.4 percent clip from behind the arc on the night. Instead, it was the controllable aspects of the game during the flow of the 48 minutes, areas where the Thunder normally excel that the team is focused on moving forward.

The postgame discussion was regarding the battle in the paint, which Utah won 60-36. On the season, the Thunder ranked fifth in paint scoring and third in paint defense, so Tuesday night was a significant aberration from the Thunder’s identity. Some of that had to do with OKC’s execution, but also to some different looks the Thunder saw from Utah defensively, including a funky zone. 

“Other teams aren't going to just let you win and you’ve got to take it as a compliment when teams are throwing different things at you and other teams are doing stuff that they're not used to, to try and slow you down,” said Chet Holmgren. “You also have to keep that same eagerness to attack whatever they're doing. If you're seeing the same looks every night that means you're not beating anybody.”

Outlasting the Opposition

In similar fashion to the Jazz, the Toronto Raptors threw a unique defense OKC’s way on Sunday nightat Paycom Center. With aggressive double teams being flown at Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on every touch he made, the Raptors flummoxed the Thunder’s offense for the first half and eventually led by 23 in the third quarter. 

OKC stayed with it, however, and continued to make the right play out of those double teams even if the shots weren’t falling. Gilgeous-Alexander got off the ball early and helped initiate with assists (he had a career-high-tying 14) and hockey assists as guys just made the next play on the way to 40 total team assists. 

One of the secondary playmakers for the Thunder on Sunday was Lu Dort, who despite starting a tough 2-for-9 from the field on Sunday turned things around and scored 17 points after the start of the fourth quarter and through both overtime periods on 6-of-10 shooting. Dort knocked down threes out of those double teams, but also attacked closeouts and made deft passes to cutters like Josh Giddey, Aaron Wiggins and Kenrich Williams around the rim.

Eventually, the Thunder’s persistence and discipline won the day, and the game, in double overtime as Gilgeous-Alexander served as a decoy and screener on multiple occasions to distract the Raptors into giving up buckets at the rim to his teammates.

Put Me in (Anywhere, Anytime) Coach! 

For most NBA players some nights will just not be your night – for efficiency, for a high volume of shot attempts or even for minutes. On others, you’ll get extended run. During certain games you might get called on for the briefest of bursts.

The Thunder is chock full of guys who are ready to play and enthusiastic about filling whatever role makes the most sense on a night-to-night basis. For Josh Giddey, staying ready was essential to helping the Thunder to a pair of tight wins at home last week. Despite not being in the closing group for a stretch near the end of the game against Denver, Giddey was called upon by Daigneault to re-enter the game for an offensive possession with the Thunder up just one at 98-97 with 52.6 seconds to go.

Giddey rewarded his coach with the trust by grabbing two loose balls after misses on the same possession, then kicking the ball to Chet Holmgren for a dagger catch-and-shoot 3 to seal an emotional home win over the Nuggets.

A few days later, Giddey was then loaded up with a season-high 41 minutes in the Thunder’s double-overtime win over the Raptors. Most people will remember the sensational inbounds play that Giddey made to Aaron Wiggins to force overtime, but don’t overlook the hustle play the Australian made to set up that final sideline out of bounds pass. A Gilgeous-Alexander miss looked to be headed into the hands of Raptors guard RJ Barrett, but Giddey snuck over and deflected it and it resulted in Barrett touching the ball while out of bounds. Just 5.8 seconds remained, but Giddey’s extra effort gave OKC the small chance it needed.

Checking in with Dieng

The Thunder views player development as synonymous with trying to win – there’s no better evidence for that than the expansive rotations the Thunder deployed last season that helped galvanize a plus-16 win differential from 2021-22 to 2022-23. In a similar vein, the Thunder has continued to explore and test the outer bounds of this group and its players throughout the season, with intermittent check-ins when the opportunity was right. Over the last four games the Thunder has had a chance to re-connect with second-year, 20-year-old forward Ousmane Dieng who has spent a good chunk of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue.

Daigneault often likes to reward players for strong minutes with the Blue with cracks in the rotation upon their return to the Thunder and for the most part Dieng has paid off those opportunities with stronger and stronger play. Dieng’s first half rotation minutes against the Jazz were perhaps some of the best of his career – not just because he knocked down a pair of threes, but because of his activity getting to a pair of long rebounds, plus a steal and a block he made by actively using his length in the Thunder’s defensive shell. 

The play that really stands out from this recent stretch, however, came in the Thunder’s 20-point beatdown of Charlotte, where Dieng made a gutsy, physical challenge at the rim on a attempted layup by Hornets guard Leaky Black. Going up with verticality, Dieng completed a “moment of truth” play that he might not have been able to make last season. That’s the type of confidence-boosting growth the Thunder can generate by seeing the long view on players and incorporating development into winning now.

Looking Ahead 

After playing 20 games in 35 days, including 12 on the road and across all four American time zones, the Thunder is grateful for a merciful three straight days without a game. That time off sets up a rare back-to-back featuring weekend matinee tip-offs. Both games will be against Western Conference playoff hopefuls, albeit two teams with very different personnel and styles.

First comes a date down in Dallas with the Mavericks, who are led by a pair of ball-dominant guards in Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving. Meanwhile, the Kings run much of their offense through center Domantas Sabonis, a walking double-double and excellent passer in his own right. That sets up the final game before the All-Star Break next Tuesdayagainst the Orlando Magic and first-time All-Star Paolo Banchero.

Saturday afternoon’s game in Dallas tips off at 2 p.m. CT, as does the Thunder’s home game against the Kings on Super Bowl Sunday. Be sure to tune in on Bally Sports Oklahoma. The final game before the All-Star Break will be in Orlando, in a TNT exclusive broadcast. Follow along on our @okcthunder social accounts and stay here on the Thunder app or okcthunder.com.


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