A huge opening salvo by the Thunder gave the Jazz a scare, as did a hard-charging fourth quarter OKC run that included a career-high in points for Lu Dort, but ultimately the size and shooting of Utah was too much to overcome in this one.
Every night when Lu Dort steps onto the court, he knows his first duty is checking the opposition’s best perimeter player for 30-plus minutes. That means ducking past every screen, sprinting into each choppy-stepped closeout, contesting each shot and squatting low into a defensive stance on each isolation attempt. For some NBA players, just the thought of that type of assignment could be exhausting. But the Thunder is confident in testing the limits of Dort’s energy reserves, and in just his second game back from a concussion, the 21-year-old second-year guard showed that there’s more and more to uncover in his game.
For Dort – it’s just half of what he expects of himself and on Tuesday against the Jazz he had both halves of his game cooking as he held Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who was coming off four-straight games with at least 35 points, to just 22 points on 7-of-16 shooting. Meanwhile, Dort poured in a career-high 42 points, becoming one of six Thunder players to top 40 points in a game.
“It starts with my teammates and coaching staff, giving me the confidence,” said Dort, who shot 16-of-31 from the field, made 7-of-11 threes and added seven rebounds, three assists, four steals and three offensive fouls drawn to add to his league lead in that category. “I’m a pretty confident guy too also. I don’t tend to put my head down. I keep my head up through mistakes. I just play hard and try to get better.
“For a guy that has it cooking in the way that he did, the thing that is quietly the most impressive thing to me is what he did with Mitchell,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said. “For him to exert that kind of energy and offense, and still throws fastball defensively, is beyond difficult to do and on the list of guys that can get 40 in a game, when you start looking at who can do that on the defensive ends to compliment it, the list gets much shorter.”
With a pair of early 3s, some stop and pop jumpers and strong drives to the rim, Dort paired his stout defense with aggressive offense right from the start of the Thunder’s battle with the Utah Jazz, racking up 18 first quarter points as OKC jumped out to a 31-14 lead.
Utah, who owns the best record in the NBA for a reason, didn’t let go of the rope just because of a lackluster start. The Jazz ripped off 8 straight points as it embarked on a 28-10 run spanning the quarter break to absorb the emotional control of the game even if the scoreboard didn’t quite reflect it yet. Ultimately, the Jazz ran away with the game in the third and fourth quarters, compiling a lead of as many as 25 points.
Yet behind Dort’s relentless spirit, and a quick five-point flurry on a 3-pointer and then a steal and layup, the Thunder put together a 16-3 run to cut Utah’s advantage to just 12 with 3:30 to go. Eventually that lead was slimmed to just seven with 29.5 seconds remaining, but the Thunder’s comeback hopes ran out of time, resulting in a 106-96 loss.
One aspect of the game within the game that this young Thunder squad is working on is the way it opens and closes quarters and halves. Against Utah, Daigneault’s group did an incredible job of delivering the first and the final punches, but can look to the start of the third quarter as a stretch of time to improve.
The Jazz ripped off 12-straight points to open the second half, initiated by a Rudy Gobert dunk, a short Bojan Bogdanovic jumper and then a pair of Mitchell 3-pointers. In the meantime the Thunder missed a pair of free throws, three shots at the rim and a pair of 3-pointers while also turning the ball over and with more than six minutes left in the third quarter, OKC’s two-point halftime deficit had swelled to 14.
Play of the Game
Utah’s lead ultimately rose up to 25, but the confidence and relentlessness of Dort’s downhill attacks breathed life into the Thunder for its final comeback attempt. An inspiring play came on a left-handed drive by Dort coming into the paint from the left side of the floor. After beating his man off the bounce, Dort hit Gobert with a eurostep, going right into the body of the massive 7-foot-1 center. Occupying Gobert’s arms by embracing the contact, Dort was able to craft an angle for a lefty layup.
“Yesterday in practice that’s one of the main things we worked on – going against a drop. The way they play their big is so low in the paint,” said Dort. “I was just ready tonight, being aggressive.”
Stat of the Night10
Thunder shots that were blocked in the game, as OKC went just 18-of-50 (36 percent) in the paint in the game. With Rudy Gobert sitting back in a drop coverage by the rim, the Thunder had to attack the Utah big on his home turf. While the Thunder certainly won those battles a few times as they fearlessly drove the lane, ultimately the two-time Defensive Player of the Year was too large a mountain to move. Still, the lesson for this Thunder team was to never stop attacking downhill against a big like Gobert, but with one caveat – continue to be more aware of how to make good decisions when he’s in the area.
“He can make you timid and you can't play like that against them. You can't play scared of your own shadow down there,” said Daigneault. “You have to be aggressive but once you're aggressive, you also need to know how effective he is and I thought tonight we showed a little bit of our inexperience around the basket with him with some of the plays we tried to make over him. He's seen that movie before.”
“You have to be really, really aggressive and play at the basket but then you have to be able to make really good late reads at the rim and that's why it's so hard to play against him,” Daigneault continued. “But if we're going to err on one side, we're going to err on aggression and I thought we did that tonight."
Quotes of the Night
“Just playing to the end. It’s a 48 minute game. Whether we’re up 20 or down 20, we just play to the finish line. It usually carries over to the next game too.”–Ty Jerome “We did throw the first punch. We made them play uphill and credit them, they’re a good team. They got themselves right back in the game in the second and opened the lead up in the third. But we ran through the finish line and I was pleased with the way we played.”
The Thunder will get some sleep on the flight back to Oklahoma City and rest up during the day on Wednesday before getting right back to action at home against the Golden State Warriors. It’ll be a very brief stint back home in OKC, as the Thunder then embarks on a four-game Eastern Conference road swing.