By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com
The Thunder lost by two on the road down in Dallas. It was a mid-January date with the Mavericks, one in which the young Thunder trailed by over 20 points at one point before rallying back. But the final score and result in the standings weren’t what mattered. It was a six-minute stretch in the third quarter where the Thunder played some of its best basketball of the season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander started a 24-5 Thunder run with a step-back 3-pointer, but from there on out OKC registered assists on all six of its made field goals and got to the free throw line for more easy points in a barrage of smooth offensive execution. That game wasn’t an inflection point, but rather a shining example of the underlying offensive improvement that had been percolating for weeks.
“We were much more functional,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti of the team’s offensive development midway through the year. “The style of play was much better.”
“The thing that was exceeding the individual development was the development of the team itself,” Presti added. “We started to play more efficiently. We were playing less patterns, more rhythm. Guys were stepping into shots, not just getting shots. The speed of the decisions was enhanced. We were just playing in a more continuous fashion and quicker minded.”
Players like Gilgeous-Alexander had already spent some time inside the Thunder’s system, but the 2021-22 campaign was a crucial starting point for a class of rookies that included four draft picks and a handful of two-way and 10-day contract players that saw significant time for the team. Thunder rookies averaged nearly 50 points per game after the All-Star Break, the most in the NBA. Throughout the season, five different Thunder rookies scored at least 25 points in a game.
The reason for that offensive production was a commitment to the balanced, ball-sharing style that was on display that January night in Dallas, regardless of the results on the scoreboard. Cultivating that identity in the early stages of these young players’ careers is vital not only for their long-term growth, but also the evolution of the team moving forward.
“We might come up on the short end of a game because we're working really hard to not take the bait and sacrifice our commitment to that style of play,” said Presti. “We’re holding someone accountable to that style of play. That might not have the best influence on the outcome of the game, but it's going to really carry forward because if you start making those concessions now, you can't get those back.”
Playing in the Paint
There were some key elements to the Thunder’s offensive growth throughout the year, and even when the gains weren’t necessarily in production, they were on display in shot distribution. From the very outset of the season, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault pointed out that the team’s primary goal was to play in the paint, attacking relentlessly downhill towards the rim to put pressure on the defense.
“As a team that is trying to build a style that can scale forward,” said Daigneault. “We want to make sure that what we're doing is efficient and can scale towards efficiency.”
The Thunder led the league in drives per game, with over 61 each night, ranking in the top 5 in points, free throw attempts, passes, pass percentage and assists on drives. Living in the lane allowed the Thunder to take over 50 percent of its field goal attempts in the paint, ranking third in that category. The Thunder also notched 32 games with 50-or-more points in the paint thanks to making nearly 15 layups per night. All that action towards the rim created gashes in opposing defenses, doubling as wide open angles for kickouts to the perimeter.
“When you're down there, a lot of attention goes to the ball,” said Thunder rookie Tre Mann, who scored 25-plus points on four occasions last year. “When you're in the paint, everybody's looking and that gives guys like me opportunities to find space and to get shots.”
From Behind the Line
As Presti mentioned, as the season went along Thunder players were more often stepping into clean shots that were created for them rather than having to manufacture something out of nothing. Getting catch and shoot 3s is a vital piece of any modern NBA offense. Last year the Thunder took 3-pointers on 42.2 percent of its possessions, the highest in Oklahoma City history and 10th in the NBA this year, as the league’s three-point arms race continues to escalate.
The Thunder launched over 37 3s per night, seventh most in the NBA, and even put together a streak of 14-straight games with at least 10 made 3-pointers. Once again, the Thunder’s rookie class of Mann, Josh Giddey, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Aaron Wiggins, along with two-way sharpshooter Lindy Waters, did some heavy lifting in this category. Thunder rookies made 362 3-pointers last year, the second most all-time by a team’s rookies in one season behind only the 2019 Atlanta Hawks, who made 368.
Within the rookie class, seven different players had a game with four-or-more made 3s, the most unique rookies on the same team to achieve that in NBA history. That list included Giddey, whose shot continued to improve throughout the year like so many of his teammates. Giddey, Mann, Wiggins and Robinson-Earl all play different positions, but just like some of their elder teammates, each had confidence from behind the 3-point line. To compete in this new age of the NBA, the Thunder will have to get shooting from all five positions on the floor in the years to come.
“It means the defense has to play multiple coverages,” said Giddey. “If we've got pick-and-pop guys like Mike (Muscala), (Isaiah) Roby, J-Rob (Robinson-Earl), it stretches the defense out.”
Continual downhill attacks and kickouts meant that Thunder players were faced with thousands of closeouts by defenders throughout the season. As opponents raced out to the perimeter to guard them, young Thunder players were faced with critical pass-shoot-drive decisions that must be made, instinctually, in the blink of an eye as the other eight players on the floor rotate into different positions. To combat the amount of thinking required in those situations, the Thunder was less focused on getting the ball into specific scorer’s hands and more on simply moving it to the open man – making the right play.
“The energy, it always will come back to you,” said veteran wing Kenrich Williams.
The results were some incredibly balanced offensive nights, including 29 games in which every player that entered got into the scoring column. The Thunder had two games with at least 7 players in double figures and 14 games with at least 6 players with 10-or-more points. By honing those pass-shoot-drive situations, the Thunder was able to elevate its assist numbers as the year went on without allowing turnovers to go wild. In fact, the team had 20 games last season with at least 25 assists.
The selflessness on offense started with on-court leaders and ball-handlers like Gilgeous-Alexander, Giddey and Lu Dort, but that style became contagious with the entire group as the team racked up 40-or-more bench points on 25 occasions, including 7 games with 50-or-more points from reserves. On top of that, the Thunder compiled one of the incredible multi-season streaks in the NBA: 211 consecutive games with at least 20 points from bench players, the longest streak in the last 40 years.
“Guys are better making decisions on and off the ball,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “I can see the progress offensively for sure from day one to now.”