The Thunder fought for a full 48 minutes to hand the Rockets their 20th consecutive loss. It took contributions from every single player on the floor and a massive clutch-time defensive effort to leave Houston with a win.
It’s a 48-minute game, but Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault was looking for his team to get out to a strong start on Sunday afternoon. In the previous two contests against Chicago and Atlanta, the Thunder’s offense sputtered at the outset and struggled to maintain consistency throughout each game. Sunday’s game, however, was a different story.
From the very outset, the Thunder looked to implement a level of sharpness that it had been missing over its previous two games. The ball movement was crisp, the tempo up the floor was deliberate and the energy on the floor was high as OKC built up an early nine-point lead in the opening quarter.
“We got off to a really good start competitively and we're really engaged right from the jump,” said Daigneault. “We just stayed on the attack and made ourselves really hard to guard.”
Thunder guard Lu Dort got the Thunder on the board first with a driving layup that banked high off the glass. It would be the first in a series of hard-earned drives for Dort throughout the game that would earn him a team-high 23-point performance.
Dort was not alone in his scoring efforts as each player to touch the floor in a Thunder uniform scored and six players recorded double-figures. It was a well-rounded, balanced offensive attack for the Thunder that earned its offense in a myriad of ways. One of those ways was via the performance of the second unit who outscored Houston’s bench 39-12.
Once again, in the absence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right shoulder soreness) and Al Horford (rest), it wasn’t just the starting five that had a different look for the Thunder, but the reserves were made up of different player combinations. For instance, in his second game in a Thunder uniform, Svi Mykhailiuk recorded 20 minutes of playing time and after going scoreless in his debut, cashed in 15 points on 6-of-11 from the field and 3-of-6 from the 3-point line.
“Obviously he's got another gear and he showed that tonight,” said Daigneault. “He still took what the game gave him, he had a great balance of attacks and also kind of let the game come to him.”
The other profitable area on Sunday came from the offensive glass where the Thunder out rebounded the Rockets 19 to eight and resulted in a 23 to six disparity on second chance points. Thunder two-way center Moses Brown led the way for the Thunder as he seemed to get a hand on virtually every available rebound under the basket. His energy on the glass led to eight offensive boards and a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double.
“He just really hustled,” said Daigneault. “The rebounding, the energy, the defensive glass. He really helped us tonight.”
The Rockets were making shots when they needed them the most and refused to go away despite trailing for the majority of the game. After clawing back to just a one-point deficit with just under three minutes remaining in the ball game, John Wall attacked the paint and put up a floater to give Houston its first lead of the game since the first quarter.
At this critical juncture in the game, the Thunder’s lineup didn’t feature a single player over the age of 23 years old and it was 19-year-old Théo Maledon and second year guard Dort trading off responsibilities as facilitator and primary ball-handler.
This time it was Maledon who took the reins for the Thunder. The rookie attacked the left side of the floor and hesitated just long enough at the free throw line for his defender to relax before hitting the gas again and accelerating for a layup to put the Thunder back on top.
Houston once again tied the game up at 111 after two free throws from Rockets’ rookie Jae’Sean Tate. This time Maledon answered on the right side of the floor. The rookie burst past his defender for a layup to give the Thunder a 113-111 lead – a lead that it wouldn’t lose for the rest of the game but would need to be greatly protected.
Play of the Game
With 18 seconds left in the game, Houston trailed by just one point and the ball was in the hands of the man who had already logged 24 points on the night – John Wall. He faced the Thunder’s defensive ace in Dort who had been tasked with the matchup all afternoon.
Wall used his lighting quick first step and attacked the middle of the floor. Dort trailed by half a step as Wall ascended for what he thought would be an uncontested finger roll. Instead, in a relentless pursuit to recover on the play, Dort elevated and swatted away the ball as it left Wall’s hands all without making any contact in the air.
“It was a good play by Wall just attacking me and getting to the rim,” said Dort. “He kind of beat me so I just had to recover and not give up on it.”
“That was a heroic play. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Thunder center Moses Brown.
The block was one of two clutch defensive efforts from Dort on Sunday afternoon as he also defended Wall’s last-second 3-pointer attempt at the buzzer that could have given Houston the win. Instead, Dort forced Wall to catch the ball far beyond the 3-point line which led to a deep, contested look at the rim. As a result, the ball fell to the left of the rim and OKC held on to take the win.
Stat of the Night21
The Thunder’s starting lineup of Dort, Brown, Isaiah Roby, Maledon and Aleksej Pokuševski became just the second youngest in NBA history with an average age of 21 years and 36 days. Even more, with its 114-112 win over Houston, it became the youngest starting lineup in NBA history to win a game.
As the lineup has fluctuated throughout the season, the Thunder coaching staff has used it as an opportunity to explore its roster and allow young players the opportunity to gain invaluable experiences on the floor in real NBA minutes. From young players like Isaiah Roby logging minutes defending Christian Wood to rookie Pokuševski shooting two critical free throws with less than 10 seconds left in the game – Sunday afternoon’s contest was chalk full of priceless learning opportunities and experiences for each player.
Quotes of the Night
“We just didn’t give up and that was what made it a good game. We just had to step up and make some good plays at the end.”–Lu Dort “Even when we stalled up in a possession, we kind of started the engine again and just relied on one another, relied on ball movement to create advantages. That’s obviously how we'd like to play and the guys did a really good job today.”
The Thunder’s road trip concludes on Monday night in Minnesota with a bout against the Timberwolves. From there, the squad will enjoy a four-game home stand beginning on Wednesday with a tilt against the Memphis Grizzlies.