Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
(Coby Van Loan | OKC Thunder)

GAME RECAP: OKC VS. DEN

By Paris Lawson | Broadcast and Digital Reporter | okcthunder.com

THE BIG PICTURE

Once again, the scrappy Thunder battled back from an early 18-point deficit to put itself in a position to win down the stretch. Though the Thunder fell short of the full comeback, the team took strides in the physicality and competitiveness required to right the ship and get back into the game after falling behind early. Behind a boost from the second unit, a big night from the rookies and a difference-making third quarter, the Thunder put on a show inside of Paycom Center and took the Nuggets down to the wire. 

MOMENTS FROM THE 48

Third-Quarter Turnaround

The Thunder trailed 12 points at halftime. In the locker room, there was a clear emphasis from the players and coaches on playing more aggressively and implementing more physicality into the ball game.  And in the third quarter, that’s exactly what the Thunder did. 

The team shot out of intermission with a renewed energy and intensity on both ends of the floor. A pair of 12-4 Thunder runs helped reel the Denver’s double-digit margin and even gave the Thunder its first lead of the ball game. After Denver shot a blistering 52 percent from deep in the first half, the Thunder held the Nuggets to just 1-of-9 in the third frame which helped secure the 29-19 scoring advantage over course of the 12 minutes. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Thunder trailed by just two points. 

Thunder guard Lu Dort led the way in the third stanza with 11 points, four rebounds and a 5-of-6 performance from the charity stripe. The third-year wing demonstrated a determination to get downhill and put pressure on the rim offensively. 

“I felt like I just had to set the tone a little bit,” said Dort. “Just try and pick it up for core just turning the heat up to dig a little bit more and be more aggressive and I felt like it kind of helped in the third quarter.

A Close, Competitive Finish 

After a tightly contested finish to the third quarter, Denver scored a pair of back-to-back buckets to expand the lead to six points. Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault called an early timeout to rally the troops and get the train back on the tracks. Out of that timeout, the Thunder strung together two massively high-energy hustle plays that led to a roaring crowd inside of Paycom Center and another late-game scenario for the Thunder. 

First, rookie Tre Mann missed a 3-pointer, but hustle leader Kenrich Williams swooped in to slam the put back through the rim all while being in mid-air. Two possessions later, Jeff Green skied above the rim for what looked to be a wide-open dunk. However, Thunder forward Darius Bazley met him at the summit and rejected the shot with authority – sending both himself and Green to the ground in the aftermath. In the shuffle, Williams scooped up the rebound and zipped the ball ahead to Aleksej Pokuševski who drained a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game. This high-energy sequence set the tone for the remainder of the fourth quarter that featured three ties and two lead changes. 

OKC tied the game at 95 with just under a minute remaining, but timely Denver free throws and missed opportunities by the Thunder kept the game just out of reach for the full comeback.

“The progress was tonight for us was we kind of we got our grip on the game,” said Daigneault. “Even despite a hot start, we got more physical, we played harder. We played more connected, and we stayed the course on offense and that's what got us back in the game.”

Boost from the Bench

After falling behind by 18 points in the first quarter, the Thunder received a massive boost from its second unit to help spark the embers of a comeback effort. Led by Darius Bazley – who finished with 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks – OKC’s bench brought a contagious jolt of energy to both ends of the floor through high-effort hustle plays which led to extra buckets. 

By the end of the night, the Thunder reserves outscored Denver 48-45 and all six players who came off the bench for the Thunder not only scored, but registered seven or more points. 

“I give them a lot of credit for the toughness of that unit tonight,” said Daigneault.  “That's what teams do, they lift each other up. Not everybody's going to be perfect every night and good teams can rely on one another on those nights. I thought those guys gave us a really good safety net with their competitive juice.”

A Night for the Rooks

Nikola Jokić thought he had a clean rebound. 

As soon as the Joker brought the ball down by his face, rookie guard Tre Mann wrapped two arms around the rock determined not to allow an easy board for the 7-foot, 284-pound Serbian. Mann managed to wrestle the ball free and immediately exploded up the floor in transition. It was a two-on-one scenario with fellow rookie Josh Giddey to his left and Aaron Wiggins to his right. Mann whipped the ball behind his back to Wiggins who elevated in stride for a thunderous one-handed slam that forced Denver to call a timeout. 

The play was an indication of the contributions all four Thunder rookies played in the Thunder’s competitive effort on Sunday. Josh Giddey, Aaron Wiggins, Tre Mann and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl all combined for 38 points, 13 rebounds, 18 assists and seven steals. Each one logged 18 or more minutes against a big, veteran Denver team and added another late-game scenario to their catalogues of development. 

“They just continue to get better and better,” said Daigneault. “They're guys that you can bet on to get better because of how they approach when you give them opportunities. So we're gonna keep giving them to them.”

“It's just great for us and it’ll help us grow for the future,” said Mann. “Us being Rooks, getting those reps in early, I think it’s big for us. It’ll help our confidence out. Just getting experience, the opportunities is really big for us.”

THE LAST WORD

“We're not going to out-strength them, and we're not going to outsize them and so if you're not punching first and getting back up when you get punched, you're not beating a team like that. I thought the reason we gave ourselves a chance to win the game tonight was because we punched them and when we got punched we got back up.”

Coach Daigneault on playing with physicality

WHAT'S NEXT 

The Thunder heads out to the East Coast for pair of road matchups. On Tuesday, OKC tips off against the Washington Wizards before flying to the Big Apple to face the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.