Preview: Thunder vs. Wizards - 11/26
In the opening game of the season, on Oct. 20, a Thunder team lacking in the experience department went to Salt Lake City and took some lumps from the Utah Jazz, the reigning number one seed in the Western Conference.
In the second half of that game, head coach Mark Daigneault pressed a different button, using rookie Jeremiah Robinson-Earl as a pick-and-pop center to burn Utah’s rim-protecting center Rudy Gobert a couple times on 3-pointers from the top of the key. The buckets didn’t change the final outcome, a 107-86 Thunder loss, but fast forward to Wednesday night’s rematch and Daigneault was using information gleaned from game number one as a primer for game number 18.
Instead of coming off the bench for 13 spot minutes like in the first meeting, the 2021 second-round pick Robinson-Earl started Wednesday’s contest, notched eight first-half points and started 3-for-3 from behind the arc. Gobert, accustomed to roaming in the paint to protect the basket, was flummoxed as to whether to stay put or rush out to the perimeter to guard Robinson-Earl. Even shorthanded, without its leading scorer in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who was out with a sprained ankle, the Thunder’s offense hummed in the opening 24 minutes, burying eight 3s and taking a three-point lead into halftime against the NBA’s No. 1 offensive squad.
“Our guys did a really good job of putting them in some dilemmas there,” said Daigneault. “When you let him sit back there at the basket, it's really hard. That's one way to attack them. That's what we found a little success with in the past.”
When a young, developing team comes up against a veteran-laden NBA Finals contender like Utah, it’s not typical for the favorite to be the one that blinks first. However, the Thunder’s decision to tie up Gobert forced the Jazz to adjust from its tried-and-true defensive gameplan. Coming out of the locker room to start the second half, the Jazz started employing late switches, where Gobert stayed sunk into the lane, but once a Thunder guard like Josh Giddey or Lu Dort drove down there he stayed with the ball-handler, while the perimeter defender peeled back quickly to try to take away Robinson-Earl’s 3s.
“Our plan was to move them around and then use the shot clock and I felt like we did a good job of that,” said Dort.
on fire pic.twitter.com/2f3qfwwmrI— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) November 25, 2021
The strategy proved effective to some degree, but it opened up other opportunities for the Thunder guards to attack – either through Gobert with confidence or to deftly bait him away a foot or two to free up an angle for a cutter like Kenrich Williams (6-for-6 FG, 12 points) to find the basket. As the game wore on, the Jazz continued to mix coverages – trapping, switching and chasing over screens, pulling out all the bag of tricks. Against a Jazz team that would love nothing more than to line up the usual game plan and suffocate the opposition with its rim protection and conservative defensive approach, the Thunder forced Utah into playing a chess match for all 48 minutes.
During the Thunder’s postgame meeting in Wednesday’s 110-104 loss to the Jazz, Daigneault asked the team to remember its film session down in Houston on the day after that first game of the year, and to compare that to the progress it showed in game number 18. That first matchup wasn’t altogether too competitive. The rematch featured 28 lead changes, and no advantage greater than 8 points for either squad.
“It's a great barometer of where we're at,” said Daigneault. “You make a really good team earn it for 48 minutes.”
That growth wasn’t just displayed in Robinson-Earl (13 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) working the pick-and-pop with his fellow rookie Giddey. It was the fact that the Giddey was fearlessly running the point without Gilgeous-Alexander there to lean on and racking up a season-high-tying 19 points – to match his age – to go with eight assists and seven rebounds in the process. It was second-year guard Théo Maledon, the first player off the bench fresh off an assignment with the Oklahoma City Blue on its California road trip, attacking his 7-foot-1 French countryman Gobert confidently for a physical driving layup and hitting all four of his free throw attempts.
On defense it was Darius Bazley rushing over from the weak side to block the NBA’s leader in dunks right at the rim, bravely denying Gobert one more for his collection. It was rookie two-way guard Aaron Wiggins getting a spot start, learning some tough lessons about defending sharpshooters Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson but hanging in there long enough in the matchups to secure two crucial fourth quarter rebounds.
The growth was also clearly in Dort, the third-year undrafted guard who perhaps as much as anyone in Oklahoma City has shown just how far you can come with the right approach and work ethic. In this year’s season-opener, Dort went 2-for-10 from the field and 1-of-6 from 3 and while he didn’t give up an explosive night to his assignment, All-Star Donovan Mitchell, he didn’t totally win the battle either. Fast forward to Wednesday, and it was Dort who was sliding his feet to stay in front of Mitchell at every turn, contesting every shot and then giving it right back to the Jazz on the other end of the floor.
Dort notched a game-high 27 points in Wednesday’s battle on a season-best five made 3-pointers, extending his streak of consecutive games with at least two 3-pointers to nine-straight and streak of at least one made three to 32, currently the fourth best in the NBA. All the while, he held Mitchell to just 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting and not a single free throw attempt.
“I’ve just got to follow the scouting report. (Mitchell) is an aggressive, strong guard and I’ve just got to make it tough,” Dort said of his performance. “I can push through when I'm when I'm tired so I feel like I'm used to it now, just going hard on both ends on the floor.”
As the Thunder enjoys a hard-earned day off for Thanksgiving, it’ll turn the page to Friday’s matchup with the Washington Wizards, a surprise 4-seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Daigneault’s crew will watch the tape from Wednesday, ingest the lessons and have to ramp up the energy all over again. In the thick of the competition on a nightly basis in the NBA, these young Thunder players will continue to go through these moments, learn the league and force teams to adjust, counter and scheme their way through a 48-minute battle.
“(You) can't tiptoe against these teams,” said Daigneault. “They'll see blood and water.”
The Thunder’s offense will face different challenges with Washington – a team that is as stingy as they come in transition, allowing the second fewest fast break points of any NBA squad. On defense, Dort will have to climb the mountain possession-by-possession once again, except instead of trying to paint a masterpiece against Mitchell it’ll be a deadly off-the-dribble shooter in Bradley Beal. Giddey, Bazley, Robinson-Earl and the rest of the Thunder crew will sort out matchups with Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope while also helping out with high-impact, rolling centers in Daniel Gafford and Montrezl Harrell.
That’s the job for this OKC group – to pick themselves up off the mat night after night, with the mindset, tenacity and preparation for each opponent that will grant them entry into a fourth quarter battle of wits and will. Then, to truly develop experience that counts, the Thunder will have to gobble up every moment of those crunch time clashes and wear the lessons with honor.