Thunder Digs in for the Win Behind Maledon’s Double-Double
LAS VEGAS – In the rush of action up the floor, the strong side corner was empty. It was only second-year guard Théo Maledon, his 6-foot-9 teammate Oscar da Silva and two Detroit Pistons defenders on the right side of the court. Without hesitation, Maledon was into a pick-and-roll action, quickly attacking with his left hand into the middle of the floor, pulling in da Silva’s defender in addition to his own. One slick pass to his big man, and Maledon had produced yet another two points for the Thunder.
Each of those two-point buckets were crucial for the Thunder in its first Summer League game, as OKC came away with a 76-72 win after trailing the Pistons by as many as 15 points in the first quarter. It was a low-scoring defensive struggle for most of the evening, as OKC shot just 3-of-27 from 3-point range and 36.1 percent overall and still managed to gut out a win.
The Thunder gave up 26 in the first quarter but allowed only 46 points the rest of the game, an average of just over 15 points per quarter. After a two-handed throw down by rookie Josh Giddey and a hard-charging drive by Maledon on the Thunder’s first two possessions, OKC’s offense stumbled a bit. Grant Gibbs, the head coach of the OKC Blue, is coaching the Summer League squad and said the team righted the course by digging in on defense. The Thunder held Detroit to just 39.4 percent shooting and 7-of-29 shooting from 3, with number one overall pick in 2021 Cade Cunningham shooting just 5-of-17 for 12 points to go with five turnovers.
“Our guys did a good job of settling into the game, and then taking advantage,” said Gibbs.
As a massive group of Thunder roster players, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Aleksej Pokuševski, Mike Muscala, Kenrich Williams, Ty Jerome and Isaiah Roby sat courtside cheering on the Summer League squad, and their energy and support carried over onto the floor. Dort was even wearing the jersey of Summer League squad member Rob Edwards, who has played for the Oklahoma City Blue and Dort’s alma mater, Arizona State.
“It meant a lot,” said Maledon. “It shows how much of a great organization OKC is. They’re really trying to build something.”
In the second quarter, the Thunder started to charge back behind the play of Maledon, who racked up seven first-half assists. He formed a nice connection with rookie second round pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who scored 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting and grabbed six rebounds to go with two steals and a massive basket-saving blocked shot on a lob attempt. The duo’s finest work may have come on a baseline out of bounds play that required excellent vision and sly timing from Maledon and a ferocious finish from Robinson-Earl.
Maledon was the maestro, continually making plays early in the shot clock by initiating offense while Detroit was still getting set. The results were extremely productive even if they didn’t result in high-flying, acrobatic finishes. Behind Maledon’s playmaking, the Thunder continually hit singles and kept the scoreboard moving, outscoring Detroit 53-31 over the middle two quarters. With Giddey only able to play for the first five minutes due to a left ankle sprain, more of the ball-handling fell to Maledon, who was not only finding his teammates but also ensuring the Thunder got a shot on each trip by protecting the ball.
“I think I did a great job of carrying over from training camp,” Maledon said. “After the season, we saw and talked about with my coaches to be able to still do the right play, whether it’s passing or being aggressive. I did a good job of carrying that over tonight.”
“(Maledon) did a really good job of just commanding the offense,” Gibbs added. “He was solid with the ball while still creating opportunities for others.”
In the third quarter, it was a Maledon flurry that turned a one-possession advantage into a 12-point Thunder lead. Maledon sized up Pistons center Luke Garza and then nailed a side-step 3-pointer right over top of the big man, then worked pick and roll twice with da Silva for simple finishes.
“Just playing downhill and forcing the big to commit defensively to me or Oscar,” said Maledon.
“We’re pushing him to really have hold of those things and when he sees them to play into them,” Gibbs noted. “He recognized those situations to get early pick and rolls and really to just get us an advantage and then allow passing instincts to take over.”
For the game, Maledon racked up 11 assists compared to just 2 turnovers, one of which came on a challenging in-bounds play with just 3 seconds left on the shot clock. Maledon also scored a game-high 15 points, thanks in part to continually attacking the paint with poised footwork and dribbling but also the requisite physicality to draw contact and get the whistles he deserved. Maledon made siz of his seven free-throw attempts and snagged five rebounds and credited his twice-a-day lifting sessions for the extra muscle he put on this offseason.
“I really took advantage and worked as much as possible so I get all my chances to succeed on the court,” said Maledon. “With the ball, I feel like it helps me play with more pace and get into my spots more quickly.”
The Thunder will have a film session on Monday, get to work at practice on Tuesday and then lace up again on Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. CT against the New Orleans Pelicans.