Nothing came easy inside the paint for either team on Monday as physicality took center stage. The Thunder responded with a season-high performance from the 3-point line and an extra dose of toughness on the second night of a back-to-back.
Monday’s matchup against the Timberwolves required toughness on multiple levels for the Thunder. Mentally, it was the second night of a back-to-back and the day before, the Thunder faced an unrelenting Houston team inside the Toyota Center.
Physically, the squad went toe-to-toe against the bruising force of Karl Anthony-Towns in the paint which required another level of execution and physicality from the young frontline of 19-year-old Aleksej Pokuševski and second year bigs Moses Brown and Isaiah Roby. By the end of the night, Pokuševski and Brown combined for six blocks and 27 rebounds.
“The guys just lined up and played tonight,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “And these are players that are experiencing these things for the first time, a lot of them.”
The Thunder took a three-point lead going into the second quarter despite the 15-point performance of Karl Anthony-Towns to start the game. While Minnesota’s offense stemmed from a common source in KAT, the Thunder found profitability in its point distribution as each starter scored three or more points in the first frame.
The scoring trend continued through the entire half as every single player who stepped on the floor for the Thunder scored the ball at least once. The bench unit once again provided a massive spark for the Thunder, but this time it was against the fifth highest scoring bench in the league. Ty Jerome came off the bench and contributed 12 points for the Thunder in the second frame alone by shooting a perfect 4-for-4 from deep. Kenrich Williams chipped in nine as he shot 4-of-5 from the field.
The third quarter was filled with runs by both teams and Minnesota got things started with a run that allowed them to take a lead. This time, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who responded for the Thunder. In the third frame alone, SGA accounted for 80 percent of the Thunder’s points with 15 points, and six points created from assists. His timely triples kept the Thunder’s offensive momentum alive amid the constant pressure of Minnesota’s Karl Anthony Towns who logged 10 points in the third as well.
“[Shai] is a handful to keep out of the paint to begin with and so that only adds a dynamic that makes him really, really hard to guard,” said Daigneault.
The Thunder’s onslaught of 3-point shooting continued through the final frame as the squad opened up with a 3-for-3 burst to start the quarter. It was Svi Mykhailiuk contributing to all three baskets on nearly identical plays. Each shot came as a result of a shot-fake to let his defender fly by him for a 3. On the last look, however, instead of shooting it, Mykhailiuk shoveled the pass over to Kenrich Williams who drained it.
“We pass up a good shot for a great shot, and that's just how we want to play,” said Jerome. “Win, lose, whatever the case may be, we just want to play the right way and compete.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, Minnesota went on a massive 13-3 run to close the gap to just six points. The run was sparked by Timberwolves’ sixth man Jaylen Nowell who finished the night with 14 points off the bench, seven of which came in the fourth.
It came down to the defensive end for the Thunder as Minnesota kept the foot on the gas offensively. With the margin built up to seven, Minnesota had the ball on a critical inbounds play with just 32 seconds left in the game. A bucket by the Timberwolves at this juncture could have changed the entire landscape of the game, but a team defensive effort by the Thunder in the paint stymied any chance by the Wolves for a comeback.
The hot-handed Nowell attacked the paint on the left side of the floor and was met with the outstretched arms of 7-footer Pokuševski which forced a pass to the other side of the lane to Juancho Hernangomez. Hernangomez was so open at the moment that he elevated for what he thought would be a two-handed dunk, but suddenly, he was surrounded by sunset uniforms as both Gilgeous-Alexander and Pokuševski landed a hand on the ball for one of the Thunder’s season-high 10 blocks.
“A lot of it tonight very was defense,” said Daigneault. “Obviously the highlight plays were on the offensive end and with the shooting, but defensively I thought we had some grit.”
Play of the Game
While the Thunder dominated from behind the arc for 48 minutes, it was a play inside the paint that earned Monday’s play of the game. Mykhailiuk, established as a 3-point shooter in his two seasons in the league, caught the ball at the top of the key and before him was an unimpeded path to the rim. The result was a monstrous two-handed slam that send the Thunder bench into a frenzy.
“It was an open lane,” said Mykhailiuk. “People had been running me off the line and I just went by Anthony Edwards. I feel like everybody was spreading out so I just got up in the air and dunked it.”
Stat of the Night21
The Thunder shot at a blistering 56 percent from the 3-point line on the way to 21 made triples which marked the third-most 3-pointers made in OKC history. It was a collective effort to rack up the historic total and required the contributions of the second unit. The 10 3-pointers made by the Thunder’s bench marked just the fourth time in OKC history that the reserves have accomplished such a feat. They did so with textbook examples of ball movement and by exemplifying the mindset of giving up a good shot for a great one.
“It's just high-level team basketball that I thought we displayed for much of the night tonight and I thought the 3s were a byproduct of that,” said Daigneault.
“That's the way I think we've been trying to play all year,” said Jerome who shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the 3-point line. “We’ve got guys that that play the right way and want to win and do the right thing. It's a really fun group to play with.”
Quotes of the Night
“It just speaks to the group of guys we have on this team – hard workers. They really get after it and ultimately they just want to win.”–Shai Gilgeous-Alexander “This is an amazing group of guys and I feel like we all have the same mentality as far as just going in the game, knowing what we have to do and playing with intensity every time we get on the court. Every opportunity that we have to go out there, we're just going to play the hardest we can.”
After four games on the road, the Thunder returns to Oklahoma City for a stint of four-straight home games inside of Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Thunder will first host the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT before welcoming the Boston Celtics on Saturday.