It took an extra five minutes of game time to decide the victor in Monday’s hard-fought, foul-heavy matchup. Neither team amassed a lead greater than 10 points and an offensive rhythm was hard to come by, but OKC hung tough to force overtime.
The Thunder came into Monday’s matchup with sizeable momentum after a convincing victory over Utah on Saturday to open up its regular season. However, for the first five minutes of the Thunder’s game against Denver, there didn’t look to be much carryover. The defensive physicality and energy that set the tone on Saturday didn’t play much of a factor against Denver who rattled off an early 8-0 run behind the efforts of Michael Porter Jr. and his eight early points. He would finish with a career-high 37 points.
“Porter, I think, made some shots he made some tough ones, but I also thought we gave him too many easy shots in the game," said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan."It was a little bit easier for him early and he certainly found a rhythm and his confidence.”
Coach Donovan called a timeout to rally the troops after they amassed a deficit of 14-6 with 7:21 remaining in the first quarter. Out of that timeout, Hamidou Diallo, Andre Roberson and Nerlens Noel subbed in and changed the tone defensively. OKC responded with a 9-1 run of its own. From that moment on, it was an evenly-matched grind-out battle between the two squads that resulted in a low scoring quarter with Denver holding a one-point advantage 23-22.
The second quarter took on the same theme as the first. A clunky, sludge of a game flow. It would ultimately define the rhythm of the remaining two frames for the Thunder and overtime. Constant fouls (32 total), repeated turnovers (16 total) and missed open looks at the rim kept the Thunder from getting into any semblance of an offensive flow.
“We've been great all year all along taking care of the basketball. Since we've been here in Orlando…we’ve turned the ball over too much,” said Donovan. “That's got to be something that we need to clean up.”
Denver’s size presented several obstacles for the Thunder, especially when foul trouble began to play a factor for OKC’s stunted depth. By the end of the third quarter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had five fouls, Steven Adams committed 3 and Nerlens Noel had four. Between the fouls and missed shots, the Thunder couldn’t put Denver in its rearview with the presence of Jokić and the high-scoring performance of the 6-foot-10 Porter.
“It was a huge size advantage,” said Donovan. “They had Jerami Grant at times as the two guard, they were playing Jokić and (Mason) Plumlee together, (Paul) Millsap out there, I mean they are very, very big long physical team and I thought Jokić found ways to get himself fouled. I thought we did a good job on them in the first half.”
With the choppy nature of the game, neither team had much of an opportunity to pull ahead for a deciding advantage. With a boost of offense sparked by Abdel Nader who finished with 13 points on 3-of-4 from the 3-point line, the Thunder managed a slight 7-point advantage midway through the fourth quarter punctuated by a corner 3 from Chris Paul.
That momentum was quickly quelled by Denver’s defense and Nikola Jokić which quickly turned the tides back to an even playing field. The final minutes of the fourth quarter were decided by free throws for both teams. The normal exhilaration of a clutch-game scenario was traded for a frustrating staccato rhythm of fouls and free throws. Missed opportunities at the charity stripe by the collective group eliminated OKC’s chance of winning the game in regulation, but Denver was unable to sink the final opportunity at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.
“We struggled to score the last three minutes and that's something we got to improve upon the execution, and the timing, the force and the pace at which we play with, that's got to be a little bit better,” said Donovan. “But overall, being the free throws, you want every single one of them, but they didn't go in. Those guys are good free throw shooters, that's probably a little bit against the norm for them.”
Overtime looked to be promising for OKC with a season record of going 4-0 in overtime situations. However, the Thunder continued to struggle on the offensive end and were outscored 12-4 in the final five minutes. It was Jokić who scored the first six points of overtime and played a key role in keeping the Thunder at arms’ length for the last five minutes while they struggled to score the ball consistently.
“I think that our energy, they played with better pace and their execution offensively was better than ours. So we need to be better in those situations and have more energy and attention to details on execution offensively,” said Gallinari.
Play of the Game
With just over one minute remaining on the game clock, OKC held on to a one-point advantage and looked to make some separation off of an inbounds play. Gilgeous-Alexander stood out of bounds and tossed it in to Steven Adams before bolting inbounds to receive the hand-off right back.
Carefully curling around his big man, SGA gathered the ball and leapt in the air floating the ball perfectly to drop through the hoop – all while taking on contact.
Stat of the Night39
Contrary to its usual domination of the free throw line battle, OKC allowed a season-high 39 free throw attempts by Denver while OKC attempted 31. It was a major contributing factor for the flow of the game for both teams the collective 61 foul calls over 53 minutes.
“Clearly for us, I think anytime a team takes 39 free throws, it's going to be awfully difficult to overcome that,” said Donovan. “We got to the free throw line some ourselves, but we certainly felt them a lot late, and it probably for both teams, controlled the tempo the pace of the game.”
Quotes of the Night
“I think we need to bring more energy for 48 minutes. This was a very winnable game with us bringing the right energy.” -Danilo Gallinari
“I think the timing and the execution for us coming down the stretch in a game like this hopefully that will be good for us. Being able to grow from this and get better from this.” –Coach Donovan
Thunder basketball is officially back in full swing with games returning to a regular cadence. Tuesday will be a practice day for OKC before its next matchup against the top team in the West, the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday.