Game Recap: Thunder 104, Jazz 90
Shorthanded and on the second night of a tough back-to-back, the Thunder delivered the first punch with defense, then used its guard play to twist Utah into knots as the game wore on. With a third-quarter burst and dominant bench effort, the Thunder ran away with its third straight win.
There was just never any space to operate for Utah on Monday. Every time Donovan Mitchell twisted around a screen and tried to get off a shot, he saw multiple Thunder arms in his way. He saw multiple primary defenders throughout the night, including all three Thunder point guards and rookie Lu Dort, who once again jumped off the court with his energy and effort.
“Lu, you wouldn’t know he was a rookie from the way he’s competing defensively. That’s big time,” Chris Paul said. “He’s been unbelievable.”
OKC teammates were hyping each other up, giving one another tips and staying fully engaged in each possession. Dennis Schröder pulled young wing Abdel Nader aside and gave him a tip on how to defend Bojan Bogdanovic. His mentee obliged immediately. When Bogdanovic raced around the perimeter to receive a handoff, Nader was right there, shooting underneath the screen instead of over it to ensure no clean looks were allowed.
“(Dennis) has been helping me personally with defense a lot,” Nader said. “Simple things that go a long way. … Once I made that adjustment, it helped a lot.”
Both offenses were stymied to start this game, but the Thunder showed glimpses of the explosiveness to come later. An 8-0 run began with a transition three-point play by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and ended with a confident 3-pointer by the second-year Thunder guard. Later, it was Schröder who got it going with a midrange jumper and a leak-out layup to end the first quarter. He picked up right where he left off as the second period started, knocking down a three to extend OKC’s spurt to 16-2.
The key for everyone who got loose for the Thunder was the fact that the guards were probing into the lane with the ball, forcing Jazz center Rudy Gobert to commit one way or the other then making the right play from there. The Thunder made 15 two-point jump shots and another 15 shots at the rim in the game.
“In pick and rolls (Gobert) is so far back, you have to engage him a little bit. He’s gotta make a decision,” Schröder said. “Chris, Shai, myself, we did a great job of manipulating it and we made our midrange jumpers.”
Still, Utah kept it close through halftime before the Thunder exploded in the third quarter. All season long, coming out of the halftime locker room had been a tricky proposition. Monday, however, it was when the team's defense and offense clicked in to another gear. Outscoring Utah 34-21 in the quarter, the Thunder built a 20-point lead and never looked back.
As the second half began, this one was still a game that hung in the balance by two or three possessions and teeming under the surface was a feeling that the first team to make its move would take total control. After forcing one of 15 Utah turnovers, the Thunder called timeout and set up a nice play to get a Steven Adams post up. He promptly kicked the ball out to Nader for a catch and shoot 3-pointer, one of four Adams assists in the game.
That three gave the Thunder the tiniest bit of breathing room and it took a whole gulp. Paul hit a pair of elbow jumpers to follow it up, then Adams took his first career charge, planting his feet and holding his position on a transition drive by the 7-foot-1 Gobert. As the teams retreated to their respective huddles Adams for a timeout, the big Kiwi waved one big finger in the air out of sheer pride.
We should probably show the actual play pic.twitter.com/4auiyEVYNc— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 10, 2019
“I don’t usually brag, but it’s the first one of my career,” said a grinning Adams, who also finished with an 11-point, 13-rebound double-double. “Seven years. Write about that please, screen shot it, whatever you guys gotta do. Send it to me. That’s my stuff.”
With a smile and some joy on its side, the Thunder came out of the break and just played. Schröder knocked down two more midrange jumpers, Nader added a three and the defense continued to force Utah into one-and-done possessions. The result was a 17-4 run that pushed OKC’s lead out to 85-65 just before the end of the third period, plenty of cushion to ride out a double-digit win.
Play of the Game
In a complete inversion of the Thunder offense, one first-quarter play featured Adams as the ballhandler and Paul as the screener in pick and roll. Adams had the ball at the free-throw line and Paul set his hips wide and planted himself squarely in the way of Gobert, who couldn’t get around the screen. Adams, on a couple sharp dribbles, got around the elbow and all the way down to the rim for a layup. It wasn’t quite an audition to become the team’s fourth point guard, but it was impressive.
“I enjoyed it. Hopefully it happens some more,” Adams quipped.
“That’s tough,” Schröder said. “Steve-O can handle the ball. He does it in practice but he doesn’t do it often in the games, but he’s capable for sure. It’s great. We’re just playing. Everybody is touching the ball. Everybody is moving it.”
Stat of the Night27
Points for Schröder, who single-handedly outscored the Jazz bench by four. The German point guard went 11-for-21 in the game, scoring on lightning-quick drives to the rim, midrange jumpers off the dribble and three crucial 3-pointers to keep the defense honest. The confidence, tempo and tenacity that Schröder played with was palpable and it continued a trend of strong performances on the second night of back-to-backs for the reserve point guard.
“It’s not talked enough about how selfless Dennis is. Dennis is a starter in this league on just about any other team. He’s a star in his role and that’s why our bench is so good,” Paul said.
Quotes of the Night
“We just played together, played hard once again. … We’re figuring it out and we kept saying that it’s nice to figure it out and win at the same time. It’s cool.” –Chris Paul
“We were just all on a string. If someone got beat, the next person was there to help and then the next person was there to help after that and so on. Our rotations were really on point. That’s something we’ve talked about, being able to scramble and help each other.”
Coming off of the back-to-back, the Thunder will get the day off on Tuesday after its overnight flight to Sacramento. On Wednesday, OKC’s road trip continues with the first clash of the season against the Kings. “We’re in a good way, but we still gotta keep working hard,” Schröder said.