Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder put poise on display in wild win at Phoenix

Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder put poise on display in wild win at Phoenix

The Thunder fell behind by 13 out of the gate and blew a 24-point lead Sunday in the second half. And still it found a way to beat the Suns and take sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Mar 4, 2024, 7:12am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Mar 4, 2024, 7:12am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The start was nothing. 

Sure, the Thunder fell behind the Suns by 13 points straight out of the gate Sunday in Phoenix, but no first-quarter deficit feels so daunting. 

But Phoenix’s second-half surge? That was something. 

And the Thunder rallying to win 118-110 at Footprint Center after giving up a 24-point third-quarter lead? That was something else. 

Thunder coach Mark Daigneualt called it “an avalanche,” the 39-8 Suns run that put Phoenix in front. 

His team, as it turns out, has gotten pretty good at not getting buried. 

It trailed 17-4 to open Sunday’s game but had the lead by the end of the first quarter. OKC led by 24 with 6:56 to play in the third and trailed by sixth with 8:27 left in the fourth. 

“You’re never as far ahead or behind as you think, especially NBA games,” forward Jalen Williams told reporters after the game. “We understand that. We’ve lost games like that last year. We’ve lost games this year. We’ve won games like that. So we have a pretty good understanding of that, and I think we’re able to trust each other to make the right play and just kind of stick with it.”

The Thunder — which at 42-18 moved into sole possession of first place in the Western Conference — gave up a 30-0 run in a game earlier this season in Dallas and won. 

Sunday had a similar feel, right down to the Thunder making key plays down the stretch to seal a road win. 

Against the Suns, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored nine points in the final 4:42, including six in a 10-2 Thunder run that turned a tie game into a 113-105 OKC lead. 

Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 35 points, eight rebounds and nine assists, his 45th game this season with at least 30 points; that matches his total for last season. 

And Gilgeous-Alexander scored 11 in the fourth quarter, when Williams had eight of his 22 points. 

Daigneault said his team’s “resilience” and “poise” were on display late. 

“Eighty-two games a lot and so you’re gonna experience a lot of different things,” Daigneault said. “You’re gonna experience big runs on both ends. You’re gonna experience a lot of different types of games. And so we want to be a team that competes fully during those and then grows from them regardless of what side we’re on.”

More takeaways from the Thunder’s win: 

Bounce-back defense

For all of Gilgeous-Alexander’s offensive greatness, the Thunder won the fourth quarter — and the game — on the strength of its defense. 

That was a significant development given some key Thunder breakdowns in last week’s loss at San Antonio. 

Phoenix was without Devin Booker, and OKC deployed an aggressive strategy against Suns star Kevin Durant, with Lu Dort leading the defensive effort and getting an assist from swarming traps. 

That put the Thunder in rotations, and Phoenix made it pay during that 39-8 run, whipping the ball around the perimeter as OKC scrambled to keep up. 

The Thunder was “a step behind” in the third quarter, said forward Aaron Wiggins, who had a career-high four steals, two in the fourth quarter. 

Wiggins also blocked Durant on an attempt in the post in the fourth. 

“(Durant) tired to post, and he was able to kind of get a good position for an easy dunk,” Wiggins said. “But I’m not gonna give up on a play, so (I) tried to go for the ball, get a block (or) steal on it. I think he wanted a foul off it, but I got a lot of the ball.” 

As the Thunder sent bodies to Durant, its rotations caught up and the Suns cooled off, but Durant never got going.

He finished the game with 20 points on 6-of-15 shooting but went scoreless and missed all four of his shots in the fourth. 

OKC forced six turnovers in the fourth quarter — the same number the Thunder committed for the entire game — and finished the night with 31 points off 22 Suns turnovers. 

“We know that when we are on top of our game defensively, no matter what’s going on offensively, we have a chance to win, and no matter who we play,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We had it for spurts tonight, and then we got away from it a little bit, clearly. That’s why they were able to go on such a big run. But we did enough at the of the night.”

Board work

In the Thunder’s Nov. 19 win at Portland, the Blazers grabbed 31 rebounds, a season-low by an OKC opponent. 

And maybe that’s the best way to put into perspective what the Suns’ Jusuf Nurkic did on the boards Sunday, when the veteran 7-footer grabbed 31 by himself. 

That was the most in Suns franchise history and the most ever by a Thunder opponent. It was the most rebounds by an NBA player in a game since Kevin Love had 31 on Nov. 12, 2010. 

Suns coach Frank Vogel called Nurkic “the best defensive rebounder in the game,” and Nurkic had 18 defensive boards against OKC. He added 13 offensive rebounds, tying Tyson Chandler’s franchise record. 

Nurkic also scored 14 points, but he was 7 for 16 from the floor and committed five turnovers. He called the rebounding record “great, but we lost the game.”

That’s the bottom line for the Thunder, too. 

“It’s never comfortable when a guy gets 30 rebounds on you, but at the end of the day, there’s more to the game than just rebounding,” Daigneault said. “You’re trying to score more points than the other team, which includes defense and offense, and there’s a lot of factors that go into that.”

Rebounding has been an OKC issue all season. The Thunder rebounds 68.2% of opponents’ misses, the second-worst defensive rebounding percentage in the league. 

And only two teams have a lower offensive rebounding percentage than OKC, which collects 24.8% of its own misses. 

Still, the Thunder’s 6,093 possessions are the 11th-most in the league, meaning it’s not getting utterly crushed in the possession battle even when it’s getting battered on the backboards, in part because it forces more turnovers than anyone at 15.7 per game.

The rebounding struggles are at least partly because of rookie center Chet Holmgren’s slender build. But Daigneault noted that OKC has options there, and on Sunday he gave backup center Bismack Biyombo seven minutes to put some size on the front line. 

Ultimately, Daigneault said, OKC could try Biyombo and Holmgren together in stretches. 

But even with Nurkic’s big night, the Suns outrebounded OKC 50-41. The Thunder can live with that, and for the most part, it won’t significantly change how it plays to grab a few rebounds. 

“I think we’ve got a good handle on where it’s untenable and what matchups we need to upsize,” Daigneault said. “But otherwise we hang in there and we don’t flinch.”

Challenge accepted

One turning point in a Sunday game full of them: With 2:29 to play in the fourth and the Thunder leading 113-106, Gilgeous-Alexander put a spin move on Suns defender and banked in an eight-foot jumper. 

But Gilgeous-Alexander’s head collided with Allen’s, and SGA was whistled for an offensive foul. Officials went to the monitor to determine if it met the requirements for a flagrant foul. 

That gave Daigneault a chance to take a look at the call himself. 

And the moment referees ruled it was a common foul, Daigneault challenged, contending it wasn’t an offensive foul at all. 

Gilgeous-Alexander could see it. Though he felt his head make contact with Allen’s, he didn’t think he’d done anything to initiate the hit.

Ultimately, the challenge was successful, the basket was good and OKC led 115-106. 

“Coach just pulled the trigger” on the challenge, Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But that’s pretty much all him. He made a gutsy (call) and it definitely changed the course of the game.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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