OKC’s smothering defense held Houston to just 87 points as it retained a lead through the full 48 minutes. Multiple players stepped up to help set the tone from the opening quarter and pull off a resilient bounce-back victory.
After falling to Houston by 30 points on Monday and allowing 28 made 3-pointers, the Thunder went into practice the following day with a clear head ready to put in the work and make the appropriate adjustments in order to force a different outcome on Wednesday. Rather than lead with emotion or frustration, the squad embraced its patented 0-0 mentality heading into Wednesday’s rematch where carryover would be critical.
“In the game of basketball, you got to have a short memory on and off the court,” said Thunder forward Darius Bazley. “Going into [Wednesday’s] game, we just cleared our minds. We had a solid day of practice coming into this game. Everyone was just on the same page that we needed to come out and do a lot of things better and I think we did that.”
One area of improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 was getting out to a strong start and maintaining that energy for 48 minutes. The Thunder allowed 48 points in the first quarter on Monday thanks to 11 first-quarter 3-pointers by Houston.
On Wednesday, however, the Thunder responded by getting off to a much better foot defensively. Sharp rotations to go along with a disciplined and communicative shell held the Rockets to just 6-of-25 from the 3-point line in the first half while forcing 12 Houston turnovers. In stark contrast to the game 48 hours prior, the Thunder had the Rockets on its heels as they were held to a season-low 43 points in the first half.
“That’s what we talked about in practice. That was the game plan to come out and play hard for the whole 48 minutes and pretty much just get after it defensively,” said Kenrich Williams.
Multiple Thunder players had the opportunity to step up into a playmaking role in the absence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (left knee sprain), the four players that OKC sent to Orlando for the G-League regular season, George Hill (right thumb procedure) and Lu Dort who left the game early in the first half due to right knee soreness. This opened up opportunities for the Thunder to explore the versatility and playmaking ability from players such as Isaiah Roby, Kenrich Williams, Darius Bazley and Théo Maledon. The group stepped up to the challenge.
Kenrich Williams led the Thunder in scoring with a season-high 19 points off the bench going 7-of-8 from the field and a perfect 3-for-3 from behind the arc. On several occasions, Williams was the beneficiary of the Thunder’s sharp ball movement on the offensive end, scoring on two backdoor passes from his teammates.
“Kenrich is the guy who brings it every day,” said Roby. “He's got 19 [points] and we're up big and he's still getting on guys and that's not something that he's just doing because he's having to get a game, that's him every day. That's something that every team needs. It's invaluable to a team.”
“As a professional, you’ve got to be ready whenever your number is called so that's pretty much what I try to do,” said Williams. “It's been like that since I started playing. Just want to stay ready and whenever my number is called, go out there and give it all I got.”
While Williams led in scoring, the Thunder’s offense was sustained through all four quarters by committee. Bazley recorded his fourth double-double of the season with 18 points and 12 rebounds. Thunder big man Al Horford chipped in 17 points on an efficient 6-10 performance from the field. Hamidou Diallo, who recorded his first start of the season in place of Gilgeous-Alexander stepped in and scored 16 points which marks a career-best seven-straight games in double-figures.
Also scoring in double-figures off the bench was Isaiah Roby who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Wednesday with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting. The 23-year-old said after the game that the resilient win was the “icing on the cake” for a great birthday.
“I give all those guys credit. It was a good testament to their readiness,” said Daigneault.
While the Thunder built up as large as a 30-point lead in the second half, it was the tone set in the first quarter that determined Houston’s fate for the remaining four quarters. Before the game, the Thunder determined as a group that no matter what happened on the floor, they would play together and play together throughout 48 minutes. This assertion translated into consistent ball movement and a high-level of connectedness on the defensive end to have each other’s backs. All the while, OKC not only met the level of physicality from Houston’s guards, but outmatched it.
“Just not letting the game come to us. We went out there, we made some forceful plays on offense and defense,” said Roby. “It was perseverance on our part. Once we pushed through, we were able to open the game up a little bit.”
Play of the Game
In an emblematic play of the Thunder’s smothering defensive effort on Wednesday, Thunder rookie Théo Maledon delivered an eyebrow-raising block on Houston’s Victor Oladipo that resulted in a steal for OKC. The 6-foot-5 rookie from France noticed Oladipo accelerating with a clear path to the rim. Maledon sprinted over to the lane with urgency, elevated with precision verticality and met the veteran Oladipo at the top of his shot without a foul.
“Unbelievable progress for a guard to go make a play like that at the rim,” said Daigneault. “It's just a testament to his toughness. Really pleased with how he looked tonight.”
“It was just something that I try to put in my identity and put as the identity of the team – to not shy away from the moment of truth and be present for the other teammates.”
Stat of the Night12
After putting up 28 3-pointers on Monday, Houston only cashed in 12 on Wednesday on just a 26-percent clip. The Thunder strung together multiple efforts on each defensive play causing constant disruption for Houston’s offense. When a Rockets’ player tried to get to the basket, a Thunder defender was there in position ready to act as the second line of defense. When the ball was sprayed out to the perimeter, the Thunder rotated with urgency to contest and deter each look. Contrary to Monday, very few plays came with ease for the Rockets.
“We just were playing with a different type of confidence on defense tonight that allowed us to take them out of their rhythm and disrupt their shots,” said Roby.
Quotes of the Night
“It was great opportunity to bounce back and show what we are really about and we did it. I think it was great for us because we had to learn quick and apply the things that we didn't do the very next game and that's what we did. I think it was good for us.”
-Théo Maledon “Be resilient and just putting the past game behind us and coming out and competing for the whole 48 minutes. Competing as a team together, and putting defense first is the main key in our win tonight.”
It’s now on to the second of three-consecutive mini-series for the Thunder. The group will have a day off on Thursday before hosting a back-to-back against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday and Saturday.