In a game characterized by some momentum-swinging runs, the Thunder kept its cool down the stretch and came away with its 14th win in its last 19 “clutch-time” games, and the eighth win in its last nine road games.
Going up against one of the best defensive teams in the league, one allowing under 100 points per game at home, the Thunder managed to be the squad to clamp down first, setting a tone of control that simmered under the surface for the entirety of a thrilling 120-114 road win over the Orlando Magic.
Head Coach Billy Donovan’s club held Orlando to just 3-of-13 shooting including 0-for-5 by big man Nikola Vucevic to start this game off. In fact, Vucevic and Magic forward Aaron Gordon shot just 4-of-17 from the field for the first 18 minutes of play as OKC was quick, mobile and active defensively. While using its speed against Orlando’s size, the Thunder pushed the pace offensively and ripped off a 15-2 run to take a 14-point lead, with field goals by six different players during the burst.
After halftime, Orlando caught its own rhythm, erupting for a 38-point third quarter behind a 24-9 burst fueled by a resurgent Vucevic, who scored at the rim, in the midrange and from the three-point line. Without Steven Adams, it was up to Nerlens Noel and Mike Muscala to protect the interior. Though Vucevic ended up scoring 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting, the duo scored a combined 28 points of their own on 12-of-16 field goal attempts.
Noel got it going at the rim, slamming home six dunks including five alley-oops as Thunder guards Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder turned the corner around screens, froze Vucevic in the lane and threw the ball over Orlando’s heads. Those gashing runs down the middle opened things up for the entire Thunder offense, which shot a season-high 60.5 percent from the field including 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) on 3-pointers.
“You got us guards coming downhill with shooters. Nerlens is just a crazy threat to have back there,” said Paul.
The Thunder responded to Orlando’s extended run with a 10-0 burst to start the fourth quarter, highlighted by back-to-back three-pointers by Schröder and Muscala, who worked the pick and pop to perfection all night. Muscala knocked down all four of his three-point attempts as the Magic tried to push Schröder into traps. In fact, all five of Muscala’s made field goals were assisted by Schröder, his longtime friend and off-and-on NBA teammate since 2013. On one play, Muscala returned the favor by hitting Schröder for a 3-pointer.
“That’s rare,” Schröder grinned. “We did a great job playing good pick and pop and he made his shots.” “Mike is a stretch the court kind of guy so when he plays it’s great because it gives us a different dynamic,” Paul noted. “We tell him if a team wants to get into a push coverage, he should shoot the lights out.”
On the road though the Thunder knew nothing would be handed to them, and Orlando made a final fourth quarter surge first behind the marksmanship of reserve guard Terrance Ross and then the shooting of Michael Carter-Williams. Orlando used a 12-3 run to make it a slim 107-106 Thunder lead with 4:58 to go, entering the Thunder yet again into a clutch-time situation.
After Paul made a tough driving layup with 3:34 to go, the Thunder made a parade to the foul line. Insistent drives with mixed pacing and stutter steps caused Orlando to grab and hold. The Thunder’s footspeed was just too much for the Magic in those late game moments. Schröder, Paul and Danilo Gallinari made 9-of-10 free throw attempts over the final 2:31 of play to close out the game.
OKC still needed one field goal to clinch it and for the second straight game, on nearly the exact same shot, Schröder delivered. The slippery point guard busted right around a screen by Gallinari above the left wing, took two dribbles just inside the 3-point line and drilled a 20-footer that earned the Thunder a 117-11 lead with 32.9 seconds to go.
It also earned an on-court mobbing from his teammates and an encouraging shove on the back by Paul. Schröder finished with a season-high 31 points on 13-of-18 shooting (3-of-4 from 3-point range), and continued his trend of second half surges with 22 points after halftime.
“His stamina and competitiveness to play both two ways was really incredible tonight,” Donovan said of Schröder.
“He’s just locked in for the full game. That’s what makes him such a great player in my opinion,” said Muscala. “He takes everything one possession at a time. I think when you look at the course of a full game, he’s locked in on every play. Throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a season, that stuff goes a really long way.”
Play of the Game
In the first quarter, as the Thunder was setting the tone, Gallinari made a steal up top and started the fast break, streaking down the right side of the floor. The Italian, sharpshooting forward then unveiled his passing skill, whipping a right-handed behind the back dime right to rookie two-way guard Lu Dort, who slammed home a two-handed dunk.
Dort made his second-straight start, the only two of his young career, and chipped in six points and two steals while hounding Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross. Gallinari meanwhile added 12 points, including a pair of 3-pointers.
Stat of the Night1
Offensive rebound allowed to the Magic in the second half of the game, after the Thunder gave up 10 in the first half. Without the services of Steven Adams, the Thunder had to gang rebound as a group and that involved Noel and Muscala using their quickness as well as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander crashing down to help on the glass.
The second-year guard recorded his third-straight double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, all on the defensive end.
Quotes of the Night
“Whatever is going on, they don’t get rattled. They just kind of play. They understand there’s going to be ebbs and flows in the game. When teams go on runs, they know they have to stop it. They figure out ways to get stops and score.”–Coach Donovan
“It’s about trust on both ends, offensively and defensively. All season long our coaches have been teaching make the extra pass. When you have that and you know a guy is going to be there for you on defense, that trust makes everything else go smoothly.”–Chris Paul
After going 2-0 against two playoff teams on a challenging road trip, the Thunder returns to Oklahoma City to continue a stretch of four games in six nights, with a home tilt against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks on Friday. That’s followed up by the second night of a back to back in Minnesota on Saturday then a Monday night clash at Chesapeake Energy Arena against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
“We talk about it as a team. All these wins and stuff is good and well but we gotta keep building,” said Paul. “You play the regular season to build towards the playoffs. We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves, but we can’t be shortsighted and just be excited about winning these games.”