Fourth Quarter Ferocity in Home Opener

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter & Digital Editor | okcthunder.com

A second chance Philadelphia 76ers 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter could have been a backbreaker, the type of shot that makes a team, especially an inexperienced one like the Thunder, sigh and let go of the rope. With 9:48 remaining, Sixers forward Georges Niang knocked down a 3 and the Thunder trailed by 18 as it went to the huddle for a timeout.

Coming out of the break, however, Thunder guard Lu Dort completely flipped the feeling just by sheer force of will. Sixers reserve guard Furkan Korkmaz, a sharpshooter who has been filling in at point guard in the first week of the season, suddenly had no breathing room. Dort was stonewalling Korkmaz’s every step, every dribble, every thought of escape on the perimeter until ultimately he came away with the possession. The defensive footwork was impeccable, but it was Dort’s two dives on the floor for the loose ball that caused the Paycom Center crowd to swell to its feet.

“I was just trying to bring intensity to the team,” said Dort, who chipped in 13 points, four rebounds and three assists. “I feel like I gotta do this more and more often just to get the team going – just keep doing this for my teammates.”

It was the fans’ first time back in Paycom Center for a regular season Thunder game since March 11, 2020 and it made the most of each opportunity to get behind the team. Now with momentum back on the right side, the Thunder started chipping away. Dort finished a drive, then rookie Josh Giddey scored on a tough lefty layup, plus the foul. Dort then found veteran center Mike Muscala on the wing for a quick-release catch-and-shoot three-pointer to cut Philadelphia’s lead to 11.

After laying back in the first quarter, sizing up the opposition and investing in his teammates’ comfort and rhythm, lead guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander surged with 25 of his 29 points in quarters 2 through 4. He dialed his own number on a pair of fourth quarter drives, finishing a rainbow floater over Sixers center Joel Embiid, then dropping a stop-and-pop mid-range jumper over guard Tyrese Maxey.

“(Shai) is such a hassle for teams to guard because he's so good at getting down into the paint,” said Giddey. “He’s fun to play with.” The experienced Sixers, however, stayed cool, getting a midrange jumper from Tobias Harris, a layup from Danny Green on a third chance and then a pair of Embiid baskets that no amount of help defense could have prevented. The Thunder, fueled by its own energy on the floor, encouragement from the bench and a boost from the crowd, kept charging. It was Dort again that raised the roof with a tough finish past Embiid with the right hand off the glass in transition, then with a ferocious two-handed dunk in the half court that put Embiid, a 3-time All-Defensive Team player, on a poster.

“(Dort) brings kind of a fearlessness and a competitive edge that can be very contagious, and I thought we saw that – at different times tonight he was really competing,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault.

It was then the rookie Giddey’s turn to take the baton. As his Thunder teammates trapped full court, the 19-year-old hung just behind half court, ducking back and forth in front of Embiid to hedge his bets and bait a pass. As Harris’ lob descended towards his All-Star teammate, Giddey slipped in and poked the ball away. It ended up with Gilgeous-Alexander who fired back into the left corner where Giddey had continued his run, and the rookie Australian buried a 3 with 1:06 to go. The Sixers lead was suddenly down to just 8 as the crowd went into a frenzy.

“The crowd’s contagious, just like Lu’s defense,” said Giddey, who scored a career-high 19 points to go with 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals, the most by an NBA rookie this season. “We feed off their energy.”

The Thunder’s charge was a bit too little, too late, as the flame was snuffed out by a corner 3-pointer by Philadelphia’s Seth Curry, his embers still red from a 23-point explosion in the first quarter when he hit 6-of-7 3-point shots. It was Curry’s first basket since the opening frame, and a good lesson for this young Thunder squad moving forward: the resilience and heart down the stretch were inspiring but laying the groundwork defensively from the start can prevent a dagger late.

It was game number 3 of 82 for the Thunder, but it was a memorable one – the fans were back, the arena was rocking and the team was leaving it all on the floor for their city once again.

“(The fans) were electric tonight. They played a big part in today's game, and it was great to have them back,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We just competed tonight, especially in the fourth. We tried to do everything we could to get the game obviously didn't do enough. But we’re gonna put our hard hats on and try to go get it.”

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