In its first game back from the All-Star break, the Thunder threw the first punch out of the gates. After building up a lead of as many as 21 points, it took every player on the floor to gut out a late-game win against a determined, shorthanded Dallas team.
A refreshed and rejuvenated Thunder squad was firing on all cylinders in its first game back after the All-Star break. Offensively, OKC was playing to its identity on the offensive end pushing the ball in transition and zipping the ball around the floor to get the highest quality look on the floor. As a result, the Thunder shot a profitable 62 percent from the 3-point line in the first quarter and 46 percent from the field. On the other end of the floor, the squad was equally locked in as it forced Dallas into tough looks and finished off each possession with a rebound to the point where the Thunder only allowed two Dallas rebounds in the first quarter – the fewest rebounds allowed in a quarter all season.
“We were sharp early, and I give our guys credit with how they handled the break,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “We had a really good, spirited practice [on Wednesday] to get that rhythm and they were ready to play from the jump and they did a really good job of preparing.”
The Thunder was without Darius Bazley who sat out of Thursday’s game with a shoulder contusion and Coach Daigneault injected Thunder rookie Aleksej Pokuševski into the starting lineup for the first time in his career. The 7-foot forward not only logged his first-ever NBA start, but also his first game since returning from the G-League bubble in Orlando. Thunder two-way center Moses Brown also made his return to the Thunder lineup after a strong showing with the OKC Blue. The 7-foot duo combined for 22 points and 20 rebounds on the night – including eight combined offensive boards.
“I was definitely excited,” said Brown. “I was excited to get out on the court and play with the guys. I missed being around them and they were excited to see me out there too.”
“Without those guys, we don’t win tonight,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in his postgame interview with FOX Sports Oklahoma. “That’s just our identity as a team. We need everybody and those two stepped up big.”
The Thunder also gained a boost from its tried and true two-man action between Gilgeous-Alexander and Thunder big man Al Horford. The duo connected on several crafty ball screen actions and by the half, they both led the game with 13 points and helped to bolster the Thunder’s lead to 21 points.
“Guys were cutting at the right times and Shai was finding me there,” said Horford. “We were in a good rhythm tonight; I was in a good rhythm as well and it felt good out there.”
Dallas refused to go away despite trailing by as many 21 points in the contest and being without two of its starters in Luka Dončić and Kristaps Pozingis. A large run by the Mavs in the fourth quarter brought the contest down to a mere two points with just under two minutes left in the contest after Tim Hardaway Jr. was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer.
The resilient Thunder, however, put up several late-game clutch plays to stay ahead of the Mavs. A massive corner 3-pointer from Pokuševski plus a pair of smooth, crafty left-handed finishes from Gilgeous-Alexander stretched the Thunder’s lead and keep Dallas at arm’s distance. As the clock expired, it was the Thunder who finished on top thanks to the mature game-management of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who found ways to continuously generate a steady stream of points for the Thunder.
“A lot of it is his instincts,” said Daigneault. “If Shai is going to continue to project himself into the level of player that he aspires to and we certainly seen the potential for, part of that at his position is being able to manage the stretch of games, being able to understand how to draw contact how to manipulate the bonus which I thought he did a great job of tonight.”
“That’s one of the things I’ve been working on lately. Knowing time and score and when to do what,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “I’m going to keep getting better, I’m going to keep learning. It’s a process.”
Play of the Game
The Thunder played with tremendous pace offensively all night long and much of the tempo can be attributed to the versatility of each player on the floor. In an example, the Thunder’s starting center in Al Horford used his quick hands to force a turnover on the defensive end. Rather than let the play develop ahead of him, Horford sprinted down the floor to beat the defense to the rim.
Pokuševski received the ball on a kick ahead pass and with tremendous poise and ease, zipped the ball inside to Horford as he cut to the basket. The play resulted in an and-one finish by Horford and a timeout called by Rick Carlisle.
Stat of the Night55
One of the biggest areas of improvement for the Thunder this season has been its synchronicity on the defensive end of the floor. As a result, winning the glass has become a major factor in the group’s overall defensive performance. On Thursday, the Thunder outrebounded Dallas 55-37 which included a season-high 16 offensive rebounds.
While every single player who touched the floor for the Thunder grabbed two or more rebounds, the major contributor to this stat line was two-way center Moses Brown who stepped into 19 minutes of playing time in his first game back on the Thunder sidelines since the G-League Bubble. Brown finished with eight points and 12 rebounds, five of which were offensive.
“I think it’s just important to want to be involved,” said Brown. “Wanting to grab that extra board, wanting to be the loudest guy on defense…I know that’s going to help the team in the bigger picture.”
Quotes of the Night
“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game. Even though we had a lead the whole game, they came back and we just had to make plays at the end.”-Lu Dort “It wasn’t pretty tonight, but we did what we needed to do to get a win. –Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
The weekend will be full of games as the Thunder now enters into its first back-to-back of the second half of the season. OKC will host the Knicks in Chesapeake Energy Arena on Saturday then immediately welcome the Grizzlies on Sunday. Both games will tip off at 1 p.m. CT.