Contagious Defensive Energy Sparks Thunder Win
Game Recap: Thunder 111, Pelicans 110
The Thunder’s rematch with the Pelicans was full of ups and down that went down to the final moments. Consistent defensive activity and several massive offensive contributions worked in conjunction to give OKC its second win of the road trip.
Coming into its rematch with the Pelicans, the Thunder looked to demonstrate a clean-slate, zero-zero mentality after dropping a game against Miami on Monday. The Thunder’s ability to take the lessons from its past experiences while rooting itself to the present moment was on fun display in its win over New Orleans, a team who had defeated the squad definitively on their home floor just seven days prior.
“We played with great presence tonight,” said Coach Daigneault after the game. “We just kind of got lost in the competition. There's ups and downs in competition, but I thought we stuck together, and we made plays.”
“That zero-zero, it just helps us focus on the task at hand and what’s in front of us,” said forward Darius Bazley. “We did show the zero-zero mentality coming in. Especially after a loss, you don’t want that to carry over to the next game. We definitely let one slip in Miami, laid a goose egg, but we didn’t let it affect us for tonight’s game.”
There were certainly highs and lows for the Thunder in Wednesday’s game and in the first quarter, things seemed to trend in the same direction it did on New Year’s Eve. The Thunder put up 17 3-point attempts while the Pelicans hunkered down in the paint. Led by Zion Williamson who connected on 4-of-5 from the field, New Orleans got out to an early eight-point lead with 16 points in the paint.
In the second quarter, the Thunder’s second unit set the tone defensively and played a massive role in changing the landscape of the game. The active efforts of Hamidou Diallo, Mike Muscala, Kenrich Williams, Isaiah Roby and Théo Maledon forced multiple empty possessions from New Orleans and then capitalized on the other end in transition. The Thunder reserves helped to force six turnovers and flipped the Pelicans’ nine-point lead into a six-point deficit.
“The first unit was a little sluggish at some points in the game, but we got to tip our (hats) for a second unit that came in with great energy, great pace on both ends of the floor," said guard George Hill. "It really sparked our starting five at that time, so it was a great team effort. All guys contributed across the board.”
New Orleans responded to the run with the help of Zion Williamson and the spark of Nickeil Alexander-Walker off the bench to keep the Pelican’s offense alive and keep the game close.
Coming out of the half, the Thunder trailed 59-54. Thunder forward Darius Bazley erupted out of the gates for 11 consecutive points in two minutes to start the half. Bazley himself led the Thunder on an 11-0 run to start the second half and helped spark a massive burst of offense for the Thunder to build up a double-digit lead. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander caught the wave as well and by the end of the quarter, the duo would combine for 25 points as the Thunder outscored New Orleans 34-19 in the frame.
"It was great energy. I think throughout this game, that was what we were lacking. We were playing the right basketball, getting wide open looks. It was just our defensive energy, and that transferred to offense obviously,’ said Gilgeous-Alexander. “But Baze (Darius Bazley) bringing the competitive spirit, getting steals, getting out in transition, making these 3s gave us a little boost offensively as well as energy-wise and it transferred to defense and that's when you guys saw the big picture of us getting ahead big."
The Thunder was in a rut offensively to start the fourth quarter and was in need of another offensive boost to remain competitive. Three straight turnovers led to transition opportunities for the Pelicans who used the open door to reel in the Thunder’s lead to just one point. That’s when Muscala, who leads the Thunder in 3-pointers made, drained three consecutive triples to send the Thunder’s lead back out to double-digits with eight minutes to go in the game.
Outside of Muscala’s quick burst of scoring in the fourth quarter, the Thunder struggled to find offensive rhythm to maintain its lead. As a result, the back half of the fourth quarter was entirely neck-and-neck down to the final minute.
In the final minute-and-a-half, the Thunder stayed alive at the free-throw line with Gilgeous-Alexander going a clutch 4-for-4 on back-to-back possessions after an and-one play and a foul on a 3-point attempt.
The final two free throws came with 12 seconds left on the clock with the Thunder trailing 109-110. A missed layup by the Thunder could have sent the Pelicans off to the races for a transition bucket, but the Thunder’s 14-year veteran in Al Horford wrangled in the massive offensive rebound. With a reset shot clock, the ball moved around the perimeter to Hill who attacked the lane and drew a foul with 12 seconds left on the clock, trailing by only one point.
The poised, 13-year veteran sank both free throws to take the lead and force the Pelicans to draw up a last-second inbounds play to win the game.
Play of the Game
Prior to SGA’s clutch free throws, the Thunder got a big-time bucket from Horford to bring the game to one point. With two minutes left in the game, the Thunder used most of the shot clock moving the ball and looking for the best option.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drove to the middle of the paint with three seconds left on the shot clock. Knowing SGA’s reputation as a late-clock scorer and finisher at the rim, the move forced all five Pelican defenders to converge into the lane.
Meanwhile, the Thunder spotted up its shooters on the perimeter ready to fire. Gilgeous-Alexander simply kicked the ball out behind him to a wide-open Al Horford who sank the 3-pointer before Steven Adams could get out to recover and the buzzer of the shot clock sounded.
Stat of the Night24 27
The Thunder recorded 24 points off of the Pelicans’ 15 turnovers and recorded 27 fast break points. Playing with pace and tempo have been key focal points for Coach Daigneault’s squad and going against a Pelicans team who has made a living in that area, the Thunder dictated the pace for most of the game.
“That's just something when I talk about balance, that's something that good teams do is they find a way to get easy baskets in transition and punish teams for missed shots and turnovers,” said Daigneault. “I thought we had really good flashes of that tonight. That was one of our better running games.”
"It's the most high-percentage basketball,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Coach always says that before the game that we want to play in transition, play as fast as we can. That was an emphasis of ours going into the game, and he reiterated it at halftime. We just tried to execute, tried to get stops and tried to run."
Quotes of the Night
"Just staying poised. We told each other it's a 48-minute game. They are going to go on their runs, we've just got to make plays down the stretch when it matters. I think we did a great job of staying resilient and making plays when we had to."
“It was just kind of a game of runs and we had to weather the storm tonight and we showed great resilience through the course of 48.” –Coach Daigneault
The Thunder now enters into the back end of its five-game road trip with a two-game slate in the Big Apple. On Friday, the Thunder will face the Knicks before taking on the Nets on Sunday. Both games will air on FOX Sports Oklahoma and the Thunder Radio Network.