12 ties and 19 lead changes set the stage for a game that went down to the final seconds on Friday. With eight active players, the Thunder hung tough to withstand the ebbs and flows of the game and put itself in a position to win down the stretch.
The Thunder played Friday’s game with the league-required eight active platers. Without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (left knee sprain), Luguentz Dort (left knee soreness) and rookie point guard Théo Maledon (health and safety protocols), the Thunder was afforded the opportunity to test its offensive systems and versatility without its primary playmakers or ballhandlers.
As a result, Friday’s game featured a large portion of the game with Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo as the lead ball handler and multiple plays where forward Al Horford, Darius Bazley and Justin Jackson all showcased driving, playmaking opportunities.
“These games all have lessons in them and they all have opportunities in them. I think we did a really good job of exploring those tonight as a team,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “It forces you to problem-solve offensively as a team and I thought we did a good job of that. So even though we lost the game I felt we took a step forward tonight.”
Along with the usual starters in Horford and Bazley, Isaiah Roby stepped back into the starting lineup along with Diallo and Kenrich Williams for the first time this season. It was this group who jumped out to a strong start, quite literally out of the jump ball. Bazley let Timberwolves center Naz Reid tip the ball right to the hands of Hamidou Diallo who scored with an easy hook. The quick bucket was the first of four consecutive, unanswered buckets by the Thunder in a matter of 75 seconds.
Eventually, Minnesota responded on the offensive end at the hands of Malik Beasley who led the Timberwolves with 24 points with six-made 3-pointers. For the first half, it was Beasley who carried the majority of the load for Minnesota’s offense. It wasn’t until the second half that D’Angelo Russell began connecting from the 3-point line to bolster the Timberwolves’ offensive stride.
Even still, after OKC’s offense cooled off, the Thunder stayed in the game with a strong defensive effort. The Thunder capitalized on the size advantage on the defensive end, particularly in the lineups that featured the Thunder’s three big men in Mike Muscala, Horford and Roby. By the end of the night, the trio would be responsible for all seven of the Thunder’s blocks while Roby and Horford each snagged three steals on the night.
“I think it gives us a different advantage on the glass and a different advantage defensively,” said Roby. “We have more size down in the paint, so I like having that lineup out there.”
“Roby, playing out there basically at the three, he was really good especially defensively,” said Daigneault. “He was on guards and he just kind of chased them, he got into coverages, things that are very unnatural for him. He just kind of figured out on the fly and that's the benefit of games like this.
Between Diallo and Horford, the two took the reins facilitating the Thunder’s offense from the inside-out. Horford finished the night with a game-high 26 points and eight assists while Diallo recorded his first-ever assist-point double-double with 15 and 10.
“[Hami] was playing really well for us,” said Roby. “He’s pushing the break. He's an aggressive finisher, especially in transition. He was getting out and he was finding open guys. He was playing really good basketball. Really good team basketball.”
After 19 lead changes up to this point in the game, the Thunder trailed by three points with just under 40 seconds remaining. Darius Bazley dropped the ball off to Horford who stood in the trail spot at the top of the key. Horford missed the initial look from 3, but luckily for the Thunder, Kenny Hustle was there for the cleanup.
“It just came off the rim. It kind of bounced and I saw it going towards out of bounds, and I just trying to save it and get us the extra possession,” Williams recounted.
Williams got the ball to Bazley who then zipped it to Horford again in the same spot at the top of the key, but this time found the bottom of the net. The bucket tied the game with just 25 seconds left and forced Minnesota head coach Ryan Saunders to call a timeout to draw up a play.
Out of the timeout, Minnesota turned the ball over on the inbounds, but the Thunder wasn’t able to convert on the other end. This left the door open for the T’wolves to take the lead on the other end with just eight seconds left.
With the ball in D’Angelo Russell’s hand, he crossed the half line and let a shot fly from 25 feet away that fell through the rim. It was his fifth 3-pointer of the night and sent Minnesota ahead by three with 2.9 seconds remaining.
The Thunder called a timeout, advanced the ball and drew up a play to tie the game. The ball came inbounds to Horford who then zipped it out to Diallo on the perimeter. Diallo gave a shot fake to clear his defender before shooting the ball at the buzzer, but the shot fell short.
Minnesota escaped with the narrow victory, but Coach Daigneault was pleased with how his group handled the late-game situation.
“Those possession games are tough. Sometimes it comes down to a make or miss,” said Daigneault. “Those games that come down like that – calls, the bounce of the ball, make and miss shots – there's some randomness, but I thought we controlled a lot of what we could control tonight. In situational basketball that's what you want to do.”
Play of the Game
It was a tied ball game with 20 seconds to go before the half, but the Thunder strung together two fruitful plays to go into the locker room ahead four points. In the final play of the half, Horford showed off his athleticism and jumped into the passing lane to pick up one of his three steals of the game. The 14-year veteran then erupted down the floor initiating a 2-on-1 break with his teammate Hamidou Diallo cruising alongside him. At the last second, when the lone defender, D’Angelo Russell committed to Horford, the big man dropped it off to Diallo who soared for an uncontested two-handed slam to close out the half.
“Al Horford was an animal tonight,” Daigneault said after the game.
Stat of the Night28
With the vacancies in the guard position on Friday, Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo and Al Horford stepped into a much larger play making and facilitating role in the starting lineup. By the end of the night, Diallo and Horford combined for 18 of the Thunder’s season-high-tying 28 assists.
"That's how we drew it up,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “Without our primary creators out there, we wanted to play through the pass. We wanted to trust the pass. We wanted multiple passes and multiple actions on possessions.”
“Obviously, missing our guards Shai, Théo and Lu we knew that we needed to make sure that we moved the ball much more to give ourselves opportunities and that's the way that we tried to play,” said Horford. “Really get it moving, get guys good looks. That was my mindset every time I got the ball.”
Quotes of the Night
“It’s tough to play with eight players but it’s always next man up mentality. I think overall, this is a good game to build off of and I think we’ll respond well tomorrow.”
-Kenrich Williams “Great fight tonight. We played a 48-minute game, obviously we were a possession away but really pleased with the competitive spirit of the team.”
The Thunder is now in the midst of its second of three consecutive mini-series matchups. OKC will return to the hardwood on Saturday with a chance to respond and make the appropriate adjustments in just 24 hours against the very same opponent inside of Chesapeake Energy Arena.