THE REPORTERS’ NOTEBOOK
The Big Picture
The Thunder had to have a bucket and a stop, and that’s exactly what it went out and got. Against a veteran, albeit shorthanded Denver Nuggets squad, the youngest team in the NBA went toe to toe in crunch-time, trading stops and scores until the clock dropped down to 11.2 seconds.
With the entirety of Ball Arena in Denver understanding that Josh Giddey would likely be trying to pick out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for a game-winning shot, the Thunder trusted each other and leveraged the Nuggets’ aggressiveness against them. Being face-guarded, Shai did not force the issue and tried to rush up higher on the floor to make a catch. Instead, he darted back door from the top of the key down to the left block. Giddey found him easily on a bounce pass, then Gilgeous-Alexander stayed poised, pump faked and scored off the glass for the game-winning bucket.
There were still 9.2 seconds remaining for Denver to score, and that’s when OKC turned to its defensive ace, Lou Dort. Squared up against Jamal Murray, Dort stuck with the Nuggets’ All-Star scorer from the top of the key, to the elbow and over to the right wing, staying down on head fakes to make sure he didn’t foul, then getting a late contest on the shot, which banged off the rim and out. The Thunder clamored together at the free throw line to celebrate Dort’s defensive stand, and then headed back to OKC with a 101-99 win in hand.
Paris: A bad pass by Bruce Brown landed in the hands of Josh Giddey. The second year guard immediately sprinted out in transition and attacked the rim with ferocity. He used a quick spin move to put his defender on his back and then easily put the ball off the glass. The play was part of an eight-point quarter for Giddey who burst out of the gates playing with the physicality and edge that the Thunder coaching staff has encouraged him to play with on both ends of the floor. He scored those eight points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and all within just seven minutes of action.
Nick: The Thunder made a trio of heads up defensive plays in the first quarter, which contributed to just 18 points in the opening frame for the Nuggets, who lead the NBA in offensive rating. Even without a pair of key contributors in Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr., Denver is still a challenging cover, but the Thunder made the hustle plays to get stops. First, Jalen Williams kept his head on a swivel and grabbed a rebound while laying on the ground, then Josh Giddey stayed physical on an Aaron Gordon drive to force a jump ball. Finally, Kenrich Williams stayed aware in the help side defense and made a steal on the baseline to prevent a catch-and-shoot 3.
Nick: Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault has mentioned that when players are physical on defense it affects how physically they play on offense. Tre Mann was a surefire example of that on Sunday night, as he snapped up two contested defensive rebounds to end Denver possessions. On the other end of the floor that toughness manifested itself in three driving attacks into the lane, which he finished in three different ways. Mann is shooting 63 percent in the restricted area this season, and showed again that when he has a step on a defender and gets his shoulders square, he can be an excellent finisher.
Paris: After a Thunder turnover, Denver set out on what looked to be a wide-open fast break attempt. Darius Bazley hustled back in transition and put his body in front of Aaron Gordon. Gordon used a spin move to eliminate Bazley from position and elevated for a dunk. Undeterred and unrelenting, Bazley jumped with Gordon and blocked his dunk attempt with a simple swat. The play then turned into a foul by Denver that sent Tre Mann to the free-throw line. Even after not playing in the Thunder’s last game against Sacramento, Bazley’s energy and competitiveness remained consistent.
Nick: About 70 percent of Mike Muscala’s field goal attempts come from the 3-point line, but in the third quarter, Muscala continued the Thunder’s trend of attacking the paint. Mixing in some rolls to the rim against a smaller Denver front line, Muscala freed himself up for a one-handed lefty pass rifled from the top of the key by Gilgeous-Alexander. One possession later, he rocked the rim with a dunk off a Lu Dort driving dish, which came as basically a continuation of Dort’s dribble as he pushed a bounce pass between two defenders into the perfect spot for Muscala to finish. Getting his fourth start of the season, Muscala finished the game with eight points and four rebounds.
Paris: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander attacked downhill, took contact and finished through the whistle for his 32nd and one of the season. SGA poured in 12 points in the third quarter and was responsible for a total of 17 points via score and assists. With just a five point lead starting the third quarter, it was Gilgeous-Alexander who provided a big spark for the Thunder to finish the frame with an 81-74 lead over Denver.
After starting the game 0-for-4 from the 3-point line, Isaiah Joe saw his first 3-point attempt fall in the third quarter thanks to an assist from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 6-foot-4 guard wasn’t finished there. On the very next play, Joe skyed high for an offensive rebound after a missed bucket and cashed in a short mid-range jumper. The flurry encapsulated the effort and contributions from Isaiah Joe throughout the game. Even when the shots weren’t falling for the sharp-shooter, he brought energy defensively, sacrificed his body for charges and had a presence around the rim.
Nick: In the most high pressure moments, the Thunder doesn’t want to separate, but instead play even more connected basketball. Midway through the fourth quarter, with Denver threatening, OKC used some of its best ball movement of the game to get the team’s hottest shooter a wide-open corner 3-point look. Josh Giddey drove and kicked to Isaiah Joe, who drove baseline and passed across the court to Darius Bazley. Bazley then attacked again while Joe retreated back to the left corner, making himself available for the catch as Denver’s defense scrambled and couldn’t recover to him in time.
Paris: Kenrich Williams stepped into a confident 3-pointer at the top of the key for OKC with just over a minute left in the game. It was a critical bucket for the Thunder to extend its lead to two possessions in crunch time. It was Williams’ third 3-pointer of the night as the fifth-year veteran filled up the stat sheet for OKC throughout the contest with 11 points, four assists and six rebounds.
“We did a really good job. Played really good situational basketball down the stretch of the game. Denver was really good. Honestly, we had a hard time getting anything going offensively, but the guys stuck together. That’s a tough place to play and it was a grind. So I’m really pleased with the guys tonight.” —Mark Daigneault
“There’s a lot of ups and downs in the game and for myself offensively, I didn’t think I had a good game but something that I never take away is my defense. I just had to step up and my team had my back on that.” – Lou Dort
“It feels good. We put a lot of work in, a lot of guys on the team have been on the team for a little bit and we try to enjoy wins as much as possible and not taking for granted when we see guys (like Lu Dort) make a play at the end of the game.” –Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
With a couple of days to rest and practice, the Thunder will recover from the road trip and then return to Paycom Center on Wednesday for a battle against the Atlanta Hawks. That matchup begins a three-game homestand.
Highlights: OKC 101, DEN 99
By Zach Beeker | OKC Thunder