The Drive and Dish | March 28, 2024

Making the 50/50 Plays

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

Lu Setting a Tone Right Away, OKC’s Defensive Rebounding Surge, Josh’s Efficiency 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 takes on the Phoenix Suns in one more home game before hitting the road once again for its longest trip of the season with five straight contests on the east coast. 

50 Wins Again 

The impact the Thunder has had in Oklahoma City as a source of civic pride and a fixture in the community has been energizing, but what’s been even more remarkable than simply having an NBA team in the market is having one that has sustained such a high-level success over time. 

On Tuesday night in New Orleans the Thunder clinched its 50th win of the year, giving the organization 50 wins or the equivalent (in shortened seasons) in eight of the 16 years the franchise has been in Oklahoma. That’s tied for the most in the NBA since 2008, and a remarkable indicator that for half of the seasons the team has been in Oklahoma it has been one of the elite teams in the league. 

A Road-Home Back-to-Back 

“We don’t flinch” said Josh Giddey after the Thunder’s exhilarating 119-112 victory on the road over the New Orleans Pelicans, referencing the way the Thunder absorbed a massive second-half run by its opponent, steadied things and surged with a 12-0 run to end the game. 

The Thunder led by as many as 20 points on the road against a red-hot Pelicans team and forced New Orleans to go small for the entirety of the second half because of the impact of Chet Holmgren and Giddey’s career-best five-made 3-pointers. That small-ball changeup helped New Orleans burst ahead late in the fourth quarter, but the Thunder responded with three-pointers by Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort to take the lead and swipe the win. 

The Thunder also slammed the door defensively, flipping its matchups in the final few minutes to switch Lu Dort off CJ McCollum and onto Zion Williamson and put Jalen Williams on McCollum. Williams’ length was a problem for McCollum and Dort’s physicality and aggressiveness forced Williamson into more difficult catches and an inability to get all the way to the rim down the stretch, or even take a shot in the final 3:25 of the game. 

One night later, the Thunder was back in action at home against the Houston Rockets and went back and forth with the hottest team in the NBA, who came in winners of nine-straight games. Despite Gilgeous-Alexander missing the game with a quad contusion and a rough 0-for-8 shooting start as a team, the Thunder stayed in and fought all the way through overtime before falling 132-126. The game was filled with highlight plays, like a one-handed lefty Isaiah Joe poster dunk and a Jalen Williams game-tying three with less than 5 seconds left in regulation, but ultimately OKC fell just short. 

Getting to Loose Balls and Setting a Tone

There are some nights in the NBA where it’s clear which team has the energy edge right from the opening tip. Last week against the Utah Jazz, Lu Dort demonstrated that exact dynamic by making a highlight play in the first five seconds of the game. The jump ball was thrown up in the air by lead official Karl Lane and directed towards Jazz forward Taylor Hendricks, but Dort anticipated the path of the ball, deflected it and then kept on chasing it as it caromed into the backcourt. 

Darting to the bouncing ball, Dort scooped it up and immediately went up to the rim for a shot and was fouled. At the 11:55 mark of the first quarter, with just five seconds off of the clock, Dort had already given the Thunder a 2-0 lead and an advantage in the hustle department. 

Physicality, Defensive Rebounding Up 

The Thunder is extremely far from a finished product. It’s starting five has the same average age as some of the teams currently in the NCAA Tournament. As a result, it’s not surprising that this team will continue to morph, develop, take steps forward, stumble and make gains again all in the same season. 

An area of growth that General Manager Sam Presti pointed to at the beginning of the season was playing with force, making the distinction between having strength and playing with physicality. While as one of the youngest teams in the NBA the Thunder might not always have more physical strength than its opponent, it does have the ability to be the more physical team each night and to win that battle more consistently. As the year has gone on, the Thunder has made strides in that quality, particularly as it pertains to rebounding. 

In the 18 games since the All-Star Break, the Thunder has made a big jump in defensive rebounding percentage, snapping up 73 percent of available boards off opponents’ misses – the sixth best mark in the league in that time. The Thunder was dominant on the glass against the Toronto Raptors, going +10 in that category even while going small at the center spot in the second unit with Kenrich Williams, who had a superb 12-point, five-rebound, two-assist, four-steal effort in 23 minutes just two nights after not playing against the Jazz. 

Josh Since the ASB  

Earlier this season, Chet Holmgren reacted to opponents defending the Thunder in seemingly a different way each night and he said that if you’re a good team you’re not just going to see a steady diet of base defense. Professional players and teams aren’t going to just let you line up and let you work your offense against the same coverage over and over. 

As the season has gone along the Thunder has adjusted to those coverages, learned from them and found new ways to be effective and one player who has been a shining example of that since the All-Star Break is Josh Giddey. The 21-year-old has been well above league average shooting from the field and right at it from behind the arc since the break, providing a similar level of production but just with more efficiency. In March, it’s elevated even higher, averaging 15.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists on 56 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from the three-point line in 13 games. 

Similar to the way Dort and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were able to streamline their games as they moved along in their young 20s, it seems Giddey is taking a nice step forward in that direction as well – focusing in on a shot diet of catch-and-shoot 3s and strategic finishes down low. Even with that disciplined shot diet, Giddey has managed to work a little of his spontaneous magic into the mix too, including a bucket that he made while lying flat on his back just below the free throw line. 

Looking Ahead 

Friday night’s game against the Suns will be aired locally for free over the air via antenna on KSBI channel 52 in Oklahoma City and channel 6.3 in Tulsa. Sunday’s game at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks will be available on Bally Sports Oklahoma, as will Wednesday’s game in Boston, while Tuesday night’s game will be an exclusive TNT broadcast. Follow along on our @okcthunder social accounts and stay here on the Thunder app or okcthunder.com

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