Second Unit Lift-Up
It’s a scrappy outfit. Two rookies, both 19 years old and from overseas. A veteran pick-and-pop stretch five, an undrafted hustle machine who doesn’t look at the box score and a second-year forward who hardly played last year. And then there’s Hamidou Diallo, the third-year guard whose presence radiates off the floor and pops out of your television screen.
It’s a group that has been trying to build chemistry and camaraderie on the fly and despite being just a few weeks on the job and its relative inexperience, the second unit has been the steadying force for the Thunder in each of the past two road wins. First came a rally against New Orleans, with OKC’s bench outscoring the Pelicans 40-19.
On Friday, against the New York Knicks, that bench unit doubled up the home team in Madison Square Garden to the tune of 48-24. In an empty arena, even on hallowed ground like the Garden, and with just 15 points for the Thunder after 12 minutes, the second unit had to muster up its own courage to flip this game on its head with an 8-0 run that extended to 13-2 to begin the second quarter as OKC stymied New York 101-89.
“Those guys came in again and changed the game for us,” said Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “They really amped it up, and then we carried that through the rest of the game.”
Théo Maledon, one of the two rookies, calmly dropped in a pair of elbow jump shots while slinging three assists and zero turnovers on the night, looking not like a rookie second round draft pick but a veteran backup point guard. His serenity helped the Thunder’s top minute getters off the bench to be plus-double digits in plus-minus on the night.
“We can count on a lot of guys to raise the level,” said Maledon.
Rookie Aleksej Pokuševski, returning from a concussion, brought that swagger and confidence he’s becoming known for and buried a few jumpers while snapping up six rebounds and crashing over from the weak side for a block on defense. Third-year guard Kenrich Williams is known as “Kenny Hustle”. Tonight he defended multiple positions and even took on the task of bodying up Julius Randle, giving up 40 pounds in the matchup.
“They’re playing hard and they’re bringing energy right away as soon as they come in,” said starting point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “They defend, they rebound and they get out and play to their strengths.”
On a night when the Knicks tried to leave Mitchell Robinson and former Thunder center Nerlens Noel dangling back in the paint to protect the rim, it was critical to unleash Mike Muscala, the Thunder’s resident pick-and-pop specialist, who came into the game shooting 46.7 percent on 3-pointers above the break, an outrageously high percentage.
Yet in the fourth quarter, Muscala went down with a rib contusion and suddenly had to leave the game. Isaiah Roby, who spent nearly all of his rookie season in 2019-20 rehabbing a foot injury, was suddenly thrust back into the rotation after being told he likely would not be in the mix before the game. The 22-year-old jumped right in and canned a couple of crucial free throws, thanks to the work he put in on New Year’s Eve when he returned to the floor after the game to get up extra shots. By staying ready, constantly working on his craft, Roby helped give OKC yet another lift.
“Just the readiness to pick each other up,” said Daigneault. “(Roby) went in there and spotted us (four) really good minutes. That group held serve.”
Then there’s Diallo. The Thunder’s energizer bunny who returned to his hometown of New York City and for the second-straight season lifted the roof off of MSG. Diallo, a native of Queens, NY, raised in the hardscrabble Lefrak City neighborhood by a pair of hard-working immigrant parents, was tenacious on defense. Sitting down in a deep defensive stance, burning those quad muscles like he has thousands of times in practice at the Thunder ION, Diallo helped hold the Knicks second unit to 9-of-31 (29 percent) shooting.
“It takes an every day commitment,” said Diallo. “We’re committed to being better.”
Diallo hustled in the backcourt for a sneaky steal and a slam. He kept the ball alive on the glass as he raked in a season-high 11 rebounds. On the offensive end, he stayed in his lane – turning the corner to attack off the bounce, used his homing device-like instincts to pick up loose balls and spaced out to the corner for his second 3-pointer of the season. In the end, it was a season-high 23-point night for Diallo, who earned the privilege to close out the game in the final moments with the rest of the starters, starting this weekend in the Big Apple with a bang.
“He's been extremely professional and he's an extremely hard worker, extremely reliable,” said Daigneault. “He's the same guy every day. He's self-reflective he's willing to put the work in. And so then when his game starts to smooth out and he becomes more consistent and then he kind of pops on a night like tonight, its more fun to see.”
"That's what it's about. We come out here, we're going to compete, and we're going to just leave it all on the floor."@nickgallo22 speaks with Hamidou Diallo after his his big game in his hometown. #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/IYDCavNqOx— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) January 9, 2021