Learning and Improving in Real Time
As Darius Bazley’s one-touch pass veered towards the ready hands of Justin Jackson at the top of the key, a wave of energy trailed behind it. It carried with it the good mojo that 31 previous assists built up over the course of 48 minutes. Jackson instinctually caught and fired before the shot clock wound down, capping another zippy Thunder sequence of ball movement, this time with a dagger that sealed a 114-109 Thunder win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Last week on the West Coast, the Thunder built up leads twice against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and then against the Denver Nuggets. In each game against those elite foes, the Thunder’s offense slowed down during segments of the second half. After dropping three straight close ones on the road after holding leads, tonight the Thunder maintained the pace, spacing and tempo in the offense and kept up the ball movement stamina in terms of ball movement for some great passing and finishing late.
“We weren’t able to pull out the last three against the Lakers and Denver. But honestly the game of basketball is so up and down that it really comes down to a few plays,” said Jackson. “It’s about building the momentum. Coach (Mark Daigneault) said that even after those tough losses, don’t lose that competitive edge.”
“We've had to kind of learn quick here, as the season has gone on and especially these last few games that in the end the games you know we just have to continue to stay with it,” said veteran center Al Horford. “We've been in a few of those already where it's been back and forth and they've been battles. Tonight, I felt like you know we handle it a little better and it finally came our way and we were able to break through.”
A major development component for young players like the ones that comprise most of the Thunder’s rotation is determining when to be aggressive offensively and when to be restrained. As the coaching staff, led by Mark Daigneault, sits down with each player before and after games to look over film, they analyze opportunities to make those decisions become second nature.
Mid-way through the fourth quarter on Sunday it was second-year forward Darius Bazley who chose the right gear time and again. First he slammed home a dunk in transition then a few possessions later used a decisive pump fake for another rim-rocking attack. That bucket initiated a sequence of three-straight possessions where Bazley made the exact right choice. He finished again at the rim one play later and then found Jackson for three on the wing with 6:17 to go.
After Bazley’s attacking flurry it was Lu Dort who kept the Bucks on their heels with attacks to the rim to draw fouls and three free throws. Consistent pressure on Milwaukee’s interior defense was rewarded by Jackson’s three-pointer with 14.9 seconds to go, which was initiated by yet another Dort drive to the lane. It was Dort’s kickout to Bazley that served as the hockey assist to Jackson’s clinching jumper, and as the Thunder’s season-high-tying 32nd assist.
“It makes it really hard to guard,” said Jackson. “32, that’s an amazing number. For us, it’s just continuing to try to play that way.”
“I feel like we’re learning. We’re watching film as a team and we're just learning from our mistakes,” said Dort. “It's just good to see how (much) better we're getting from every game.”
Sunday night was a great stride forward for the Thunder as it learned how to close out a win against a top-level opponent. There’s another aspect of the game Daigneault has had his team work on as well. At the end of January, the Thunder had a string of rough starts to games but then course-corrected in the second quarter to stay within striking distance. Over the last couple of weeks, the Thunder turned that trend around and has been excellent in first halves, holding halftime leads in seven-straight games.
“I've been impressed with our group's ability to translate to what Coach (Daigneault) is talking about,” said Horford. “Our group continues to respond.”
Over the last two contests, those strong starts have reached an even higher pinnacle. Against two of the most high-octane offenses in the NBA, the Thunder forced season-lows in points in a half for Denver and Milwaukee. The paint protection in both first halves was sensational, with the Thunder building a wall of defenders in transition on Sunday to hem in Giannis Antetokounmpo, at least as much as can be done against the back-to-back league MVP.
That stymying presence in the lane forced Milwaukee to become an out-of-rhythm jump shooting squad and the Thunder benefitted from some attempts that strayed much further than they typically do for the Bucks. Daigneault’s squad ripped off 14-straight points in the middle of the first quarter, thanks to a game plan that forward Isaiah Roby said before the game that he was excited to execute and then a quick first quarter timeout to get the team organized.
“All the credit is really to the coaches. The schemes they have us going into and the things they have us doing defensively is really working,” said Jackson. “It’s showing in the numbers but we can see it too when we’re out there on the court.”
“Like we have all year, the team's done a great job of just focusing on where we can improve detail by detail and just allowing the cumulative effect of that to show itself over time,” Daigneault said. “What the NBA and this schedule and life requires you got to be able to be really resilient and persistent. And we've got a bunch of guys in the locker room that definitely embody that and I think it's been on full display the last week or so.”
At the beginning of the season, the Thunder’s goal was to get better day by day, using the incremental gains that come with creating an environment of growth. Using the positive feedback loop of their development plan, the Thunder has continued to make strides forward and make corrections based on the feedback from the coaching staff. Sunday’s victory over Milwaukee was a great example of the ways the Thunder has grown with its offensive stamina in late game situations and its better defensive starts. As the season continues, the Thunder will have to keep that same approach to whatever focal points will need to be addressed next.
“For us it’s just trying to keep that up and obviously learn from things that we can get better at,” Jackson said. “I’m just proud of everybody. That was a really good win.”