In Gordon Hayward’s quiet debut, the Thunder delivered a loud message

In Gordon Hayward’s quiet debut, the Thunder delivered a loud message

Once he settles in, Gordon Hayward can give the Thunder a new look. But in blowing out the Clippers on Thursday, OKC won in the same way it has all season without him.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 23, 2024, 5:55am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 23, 2024, 5:55am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — There was a moment Thursday, and not much more than a moment, when Gordon Hayward slid into a Thunder lineup where he seems like such a logical fit. 

The 6-foot-7 forward — who made this Thunder debut Thursday after arriving via a Feb. 8 trade with Charlotte — opened the fourth quarter sharing the court against the Clippers with starters Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Lu Dort and Chet Holmgren. 

And you could imagine how that five might fit in a critical game down the stretch, say, or in some first-round playoff matchup. 

But you needed a really good imagination. 

Because they were on the floor for a minute and 21 seconds. 

On a night the Thunder debuted a significant new guy, it leaned into old ways of winning to blitz the Clippers 129-107. 

OKC in its first game after the All-Star break looked like a refreshed version of the team it was before the NBA’s intermission. 

The Thunder pressured on the perimeter, committed to contesting shots and pushed the pedal in transition. 

“I think we’re a team where it starts on defense,” Holmgren said. “Everybody talks about our offense, what we do on that end of the floor, but our game really feeds off what we do on defense and the effort we have. We did a good job of bringing it tonight, and we just got to keep doing that going forward.”

Games immediately after the All-Star break come with “a lot of randomness,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, cautioning against reading too much into one Western Conference contender’s rout of another. 

So maybe the Thunder (38-17) didn’t send any messages in blowing open a close game with a full-throttle third quarter, or in claiming a tiebreaker against the Clippers by winning the regular-season series 2-1. 

But it at least provided a reminder that even before Hayward came along, the best version of OKC could smother other teams fighting for playoff position. 

The Thunder had 11 blocks and nine steals against the Clippers (36-18). And those 20 combined plays weren’t just stops. 

Many of them started something. 

OKC scored 20 points off 14 L.A. turnovers and outscored the Clippers 30-10 in fast-break points. Daigneault called transition “a natural habitat” for his players, and they lived there much of Thursday night. 

Two of Gilgeous-Alexander’s game-high 31 points came on a layup after a fantastic full-speed crossover of Paul George. 

Late in the game, Williams sprinted away from the Clippers after a turnover, hammering a dunk with one hand and then using two to high-five a fan in the front row. 

“When we get misses and we get turnovers, we just cut them loose, and we encourage them to be who they are, which is instinctive, unselfish players,” Daigneault said. “And they do a great job of that.”

That’s nothing new. The Thunder leads the NBA in points off turnovers (19.7 per game) and ranks ninth in fast-break points (15.2). 

But it was in a different gear against the Clippers, particularly in the second half. 

OKC outscored L.A. 68-48 after halftime. Seven of the Thunder’s blocked shots — and 15 of its 30 fast-break points — came in the third quarter, when it stretched a two-point halftime lead to 17 by the start of the fourth. 

The Clippers, Daigneault said, are a team that “requires great energy” to beat. 

The Thunder brought plenty of it, perhaps with an All-Star break boost. 

“Fresh legs,” Holmgren said. “We’re young, got a couple of days off. So it helped us get up and down.”

In one wild third-quarter sequence, the Thunder forced a turnover only to have the Clippers’ Amir Coffey steal the ball right back near his basket. 

Gilgeous-Alexander blocked Coffey’s layup attempt and contested Norman Powell’s putback attempt, which missed and bounced to Josh Giddey; he started a break that ended in a Kenrich Williams 3-pointer, a 94-79 Thunder lead and an eruption from the Paycom Center crowd. 

It was a moment emblematic of the night for OKC: a frenetic, aggressive conversion of defense to offense. 

“They’re all 23, 24 years old,” Clippers forward Paul George told reporters in the locker room. “I mean, they’re active, all of them at that age. You play with that type of aggression defensively when you’re that youthful. That’s the easy part to come by.” 

Of course, they aren’t all so young. 

Hayward turns 34 next month, and the expectation is that he’ll be an important piece before the season’s complete.

He’s coming off a calf strain — his action Thursday was the first he’d seen in a game since Dec. 26 with the Hornets — and the rust is apparent. He missed both of his field-goal attempts in a scoreless 14 minutes. 

But sitting so long with an injury makes for “dark days” for a player, Daigneault said, and more than anything the Thunder coach was happy to see Hayward back on the court, even if there were no “huge conclusions to draw after one game.”

There are 27 more of them in the regular season — including another at home Friday, against the Wizards — to determine Hayward’s new role, to look at him in a variety of lineups. 

And if the Thunder keeps playing as fast as it did Thursday, maybe it can afford slow play finding his fit. 

“Anytime a guy hasn’t played in seven weeks and he’s transitioning to a new team, new city — he’s probably FaceTiming with his kids right now —  it’s a hard adjustment,” Daigneault said. “So I’m just happy for him. I’m happy that he’s part of the team, he’s one of the guys. He seems to be happy here. The team is happy he’s here.”

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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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