Late Execution and Collective Effort Give Thunder Win Over Bucks
Game Recap: Thunder 114, Bucks 109
The Thunder withstood every blow that the Bucks threw its way on a frigid Sunday night in OKC. With a season high in assists, a consistent 48-minute defensive effort and a dagger 3-pointer from Justin Jackson, the Thunder outlasted Milwaukee in yet another late-game effort.
The reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo drove the left side of the paint against Thunder second year forward Isaiah Roby picking up incredible momentum toward the rim. At the tail end of his drive, Antetokounmpo spun back to the middle of the lane where his momentum was immediately stopped by the ready hands of Kenrich Williams who grabbed the ball, secured it with both palms and kicked it ahead to Justin Jackson in transition for an easy layup.
This was a microcosm of the kind of effort and execution required for the Thunder on Sunday night as it took down the second ranked team in the Eastern Conference – a collective defensive effort that led to collectively-generated offense.
For the first few minutes of the game, however, it was Milwaukee who seemed to be the aggressors. Out of the gates, the Bucks went on an unanswered 8-0 run that suddenly ballooned to a 13-3 Milwaukee lead before Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault called a timeout to regroup and resettle.
Out of that timeout, the Thunder erupted on a 14-0 run to not only close the gap but take the lead in the first quarter. The ball movement intensified, the defense tightened and the Thunder’s trend of strong first quarters remained intact.
“There's going to be ups and downs, so it was really just regrouping and refocusing everybody on what the blueprint was for the game on both ends of the floor,” said Daigneault in reference to the timeout he called in the first quarter. “We weren't terrible in the first few minutes but against a team that good, you can't be average or above average, you have to be great at it and for the rest of the game our execution was great.”
The execution was prevalent on both sides of the floor. Offensively, the Thunder’s ball movement led to eight assists on 10 made buckets in the first quarter and then 17 on 22 in the entire first half. Early on, it was Lu Dort who kept the Thunder’s offense flowing. When the shots weren’t falling from behind the arc, the sophomore guard drove his way to the rim getting shots, drawing fouls and finding his teammates for open looks. He finished the half with a team-high 16 points.
“[Dort] was relentless,” said Daigneault. “Not only shooting it better tonight but getting to the rim and getting the line.”
Defensively, the Thunder backed up one strong performance with another as it held Milwaukee to a season-low 41 first half points. It would mark the second-consecutive game where OKC would hold its opponent to its season-low in points for a half.
Thunder center Al Horford matched up with Antetokounmpo providing a strong first line of defense, but it was his teammates who truly provided the support. The Thunder built a wall defensively working to keep the Bucks out of the paint and away from easy baskets at the rim. Then when the ball got pitched out to the perimeter, there was sharp rotation and urgency to contest each look. At the end of the half, the Bucks shot just 3-of-18 from the 3-point line and a mere 35 percent from the field.
“When you help that much on a player like [Antetokounmpo], and then you're doing it with a team that shoots it as well as they do, you’ve got to really make efforts to close out hard, and also get your help defense pulled over to those hard close outs and I thought we made those multiple efforts tonight,” said Daigneault.
Milwaukee wouldn’t be suppressed all night long. The league leaders in points per game came out in the third quarter and posted 40 points, just one shy of its entire first half total. It was Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis Jr. who did most of the offensive damage for the Bucks as they combined for 20 points in the quarter.
Even still, the Thunder retained its composure, withstood the blows and remained locked in on its game plan to move the ball and play through the paint. Despite the Bucks surge in offense, the two teams entered into the fourth quarter tied at 81 points.
“All nine guys that touched the floor I thought embody that type of resilience,” said Daigneault. “That's what the NBA and this schedule and life requires. You've got to be able to be really resilient and persistent.”
For the fourth consecutive game, the Thunder found itself in a late-game battle to win the game. By the final stanza, both teams found their mark offensively as Milwaukee began shooting 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from behind the arc. The Thunder, however shot 58 percent from the floor and a scorching 71 percent from deep.
The early offensive energy for the Thunder can be attributed to forward Darius Bazley who went on a mini, one-man burst as he was responsible for seven consecutive Thunder points early on. On back-to-back possessions, the sophomore forward drive the middle of the floor off the left wing and finished with his right hand at the basket. Then in transition, it was Baze who found Jackson in the deep corner for one of his three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter alone.
“There's going to be times where [Bazley is] up and times where he's down, but he kept coming tonight,” said Daigneault. “He was outstanding.”
Bazley’s early output helped put the Thunder ahead by a safe margin of eight points, its largest lead of the quarter. This was fortunate as Donte DiVicenzo cashed in a pair of 3-pointers to close the gap to one possession with just under five minutes left in the contest.
The Thunder would balance its fragile lead for the next four minutes as the two teams would trade buckets until Antetokounmpo tipped in a layup on an offensive rebound to bring the game to just two points with 25 seconds remaining.
The Thunder had the chance to take the lead with the following possession as the time waned on the game clock. At first, the Thunder’s possession looked to be out of sorts as a pass from Dort forced Bazley to stretch nearly out of bounds to save the ball with less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock. With one hand, Bazley swiftly caught the pass and kicked it to Jackson who stood open at the top of the key. Using his quick release, Jackson let the shot fly as the clock expired, all eyes on the floor and on the Thunder bench watched in anticipation as the ball sailed through the air. Teammates rose to their feet and held their breath in anticipation for the nets to splash signaling a made bucket.
As the ball slid through the cylinder, a smile slid across Jackson’s face. He was greeted immediately by Horford who gave him an emphatic and relieved push as he walked toward the bench. There, his teammates dapped and hyped him up celebrating the fact that Jackson’s professionalism and readiness payed off at the most opportune moment, when his team needed it the most.
“That was the dagger,” Horford said with a smile after the game.
After logging a season-high 20 points on Friday, Jackson once again led all scorers with a new season-high mark 22 points in his second start of the season.
“I didn’t play much at the very beginning of the season, but for me I try to strive to be a true professional, always try to stay ready and take advantage of the opportunities that I have.” said Jackson in his interview with FOX Sports Oklahoma.
“Justin Jackson, he's a worker, he stepped up and he's getting way more minutes,” said Dort. “He's just hooping and playing hard and that's what we want him to do.”
Play of the Game
Of the many plays that Darius Bazley made throughout his impressive fourth quarter, his right-handed slam dunk right in front of the Thunder bench raised the most eyebrows. After a quick shot fake on the perimeter over Torrey Craig, Bazley accelerated toward the lane, unphased by the impending help approaching in the form of Khris Middleton. The fearless sophomore forward rise up, and forced the ball through the rim with authority as his teammates flexed in approval on the sidelines.
Stat of the Night32
It has now been six straight games where the Thunder has dished out 20 or more assists in a game. On Sunday against Milwaukee, the Thunder tied its season high with 32 assists as every single player to touch the floor for OKC recorded at least one.
Once again, without the presence of a true point guard on the floor it was offense by committee to facilitate good looks. Against Denver on Friday, it was Kenrich Williams who dished out a team-high and career-high nine assists but on Sunday, it was Al Horford who led the assist column with a season-high nine dimes.
“The number one thing is it makes us really hard to guard. Obviously, we have a ton of great offensive players, but the fact that we make it so hard for the team to guard us it makes it so much easier for us to score,” said Jackson. “Thirty-two is an amazing number, so for us its just trying to continue to play that way.”
Quotes of the Night
“We're believing in each other but also believing in what Coach is telling us and then trying to play the right way most importantly.”
“The game of basketball is so, up and down, it really just comes down to a few plays. Thankfully we made some plays. We made enough plays to be able to come out with the win tonight and so I think it's just a matter of building the momentum.” –Justin Jackson
The Thunder will get another swing at the Bucks on Friday in Milwaukee, but first OKC will have a road-home back-to-back in the middle of the week. On Tuesday, the Thunder host Portland in Chesapeake Energy Arena before heading to Memphis on Wednesday to take on the Grizzlies.