Thunder picks up pace, effort in dogged-day afternoon win over Kings

Thunder picks up pace, effort in dogged-day afternoon win over Kings

It takes stops to get the Thunder started, and against the Kings on Sunday, OKC’s defense got the offense back in high gear.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 12, 2024, 5:36am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 12, 2024, 5:36am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Chet Holmgren had blocked a shot to get things started, and as Thunder teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander brought the ball upcourt — still in first gear, maybe second — there was an opening. 

So he pressed the gas. 

He never hit top speed, but Gilgeous-Alexander got enough velocity to get by the Kings’ Keon Ellis and into the paint, where the Thunder guard did some midair maneuvering to spin in a reverse layup around a contesting Keegan Murray. 

The whole thing took about six seconds. 

And that was more like it. 

That first-quarter play — a stop turned that turned into a score — was emblematic of the Thunder’s 127-113 win Sunday afternoon, a game in which OKC played to a standard and a style that had slipped a bit of late. 

“We came out really good (early) today, and I think it set the tone for the rest of the night,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We were playing to our identity from the jump.”

The Thunder (36-17) had a case of mistaken identity in last week’s loss at Utah and looked like a team with an identity crisis — or at least some kind of crisis — Saturday afternoon in Dallas. 

The Mavericks mashed OKC 146-111 in that Saturday matinee, limiting the Thunder’s points in the paint, fast-break chances and points off turnovers, hallmarks of this breakout season. 

With a one-day turnaround, the Thunder had little time for self-discovery. But clearly it found something, winning not only for the first time this season in a game that tipped off at 2 p.m. or earlier but for the first time in its past nine tries against the Kings (30-22). 

It was a remarkable turnaround given that full-on flatness of the previous day’s loss. The Kings on Sunday scored 57 points in the first half; the Mavs on Saturday had 47 by the end of the first quarter. 

“I thought we were just a lot more edgy today than we were yesterday,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “It’s not about responding to one game, but it certainly is about us recognizing where our standards are and getting the car back on the road when we’re not up to par.”

The Thunder on Sunday looked like itself, starting with a win to snap a two-game losing streak. OKC hasn’t lost three in a row all season. 

But it was more than that. The Thunder did Thunder things. 

“The way we lost (to Dallas), a lot of it was just our identity,” OKC forward Jalen Williams said. “Like, we played slow, we didn’t defend well. So a lot of that we understood was pretty fixable.”

So the Thunder fixed it. 

In losses last week to the Jazz and Mavs, OKC totaled 70 points in the paint. It had 54 on Sunday.

The Thunder’s transition offense — which Daigneault said “the last nine or 10 games has not been great” — had stalled against Utah and Dallas. OKC combined for seven fast-break points in those losses; it doubled that number Sunday against the Kings. 

Against the Jazz and Mavericks, the Thunder turned turnovers into a combined 34 points. It scored 30 points off 18 Kings turnovers Sunday. 

And Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams — who’d combined to average 44 points in the losses to Utah and Dallas — totaled 70 against Sacramento, 38 from Gilgeous-Alexander and 32 from Williams. 

“It’s hard to score or move the ball without an advantage, and those guys are advantage creators,” Daigneault said. “Shai tonight, I thought they got really aggressive with him with with double teams, which volunteers an advantage. It allows us to get the ball ahead of the defense. I thought we had good attacks out of that for the most part. And obviously Dub really had it going tonight.”

It helped that the Thunder got the ball upcourt in a hurry off stops, like that early Gilgeous-Alexander layup. 

The Kings shot 48.9% from the floor, but both the Jazz and Mavericks had made more than half their shots against the Thunder. 

And though Sacramento hurt OKC early on the offensive glass, eight of the Kings’ 10 offensive rebounds and all 11 of their second-chance points came before halftime. The Thunder limited Kings star De’Aaron Fox to 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting, in large part thanks to aggressive defense from Lu Dort. 

That added up to no shortage of stops. 

And those make the Thunder go. 

On Saturday, Holmgren noted the synergy of offense and defense. 

A defensive stop means a better chance to score in transition — before an opponent’s defense can get set. In turn, scoring allows you to set your defense at the other end and force your opponent to score in the half court. 

It’s been a winning formula this season for the Thunder, but last week, the math was a problem. 

Against the Kings, OKC got back to its speedy solutions. 

“We all know we have an advantage whenever we play fast,” Dort said. “So we want to stick to that. We kind of went away from that for a couple games, but it’s OK. We just got to get back to it, which we did today.”

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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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