What happened to the Thunder in Utah was an inside job

What happened to the Thunder in Utah was an inside job

How to make 19 shots from 3-point range and lose: Surrender — and be deprived of — a "more stable source of offense."

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 7, 2024, 6:25am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 7, 2024, 6:25am CST

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OKLAHOMA CITY — You might think the 19 3-pointers would have done it. 

The Thunder made them Tuesday in 37 attempts, the kind of line from long range that would seem a good sign in OKC’s bid to knock off the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. 

But the Thunder of all teams knows the two-point shot — especially the kind from point-blank range — still wins a lot of games. It won one Tuesday for the Jazz, who rallied to beat OKC 124-117 at Delta Center despite the Thunder sizzling from distance. 

“I didn’t know we had that many (3-pointers),” guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters in Salt Lake City. “But it felt like we had some things that we could have taken care of that we didn’t, so it didn’t feel like we should have won the game.”

The Thunder’s biggest issues were one familiar fault — the Jazz had a 48-32 edge in rebounding a 19-9 advantage in second-chance points — and one brand-new snafu. 

OKC couldn’t score in the paint. And it couldn’t stop Utah from doing it. 

The Thunder, which scores 53.5 points per game in the paint, had 36 against the Jazz. And Utah scored 60 paint points, well beyond the 46.1 OKC gives up on average. 

The Jazz shot 30 of 47 in the paint. The Thunder was 18 for 41. 

It helped Utah’s defensive cause that it played stretches with 7-footers Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler on the court together, with Kessler hanging around the rim to contest shots in the paint. 

The Jazz also played a zone defense that Gilgeous-Alexander admitted “jumbled us up.” 

Utah’s muscle around the rim at both ends offset what OKC did from long range. 

“They outrebounded us. They won the paint battle,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Losing those two things (by) the margins we lost them in, it’s gonna be hard to win a basketball game.”

It takes something like that to beat the Thunder on a night when it makes 19 of 37 3-pointers. The loss Tuesday dropped OKC to 10-2 this season in games when it makes at least 18 3s and 5-1 when it makes 19 or more. 

Even on that kind of night, though, “shot-making goes in and out,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, and it went out down the stretch. 

OKC went 1 for 5 from 3-point range in the final 5:30 against the Jazz and missed its last three attempts from long distance. It made 2 of its final 12 shots overall. 

Utah, meanwhile, made its last five shots, and though three of them came from 3-point range, one was a cutting dunk by Walker Kessler that pushed the Jazz to 60 paint points.

“I thought (the Jazz) just got the more stable sources of offense tonight,” Daigneault said. 

More takeaways from the Thunder loss:

Jalen Williams returns 

With 5:28 to play in the third quarter, the Thunder led 89-77. That was before a  19-3 Jazz run that flipped the game. That stretch included 14 straight Utah points over the final 3:46 of the third. 

And it’s reasonable to think the Jazz might have won in a rout if Jalen Williams still was sitting out. 

Williams returned from a two-game absence with an ankle sprain and scored 26 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. He played all 12 minutes of the fourth, making 4 of 8 shots, 3 of 4 3-pointers and both of his free-throw attempts. 

“I thought he was really good most of the night,” Daigneault said. “Thought he really competed defensively, especially in the second half and offensively, seemed like he didn’t drop off in terms of rhythm. He was pretty spry and had a nice blend again tonight. So, happy to have him back certainly.”

Williams had five rebounds and five assists, three of those to rookie Chet Holmgren, who finished with 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. Holmgren got a 3-pointer and two lob dunks off Williams passes in the third quarter. 

The Thunder was without guard Isaiah Joe, who missed his third straight game with a sternum contusion and might have been helpful, Holmgren said, against the Utah zone. But Williams’ return was “big,” Holmgren said. 

“(Williams) does a lot of things, not only on the offensive end but on defense as well,” Homgren said. “It seems like he’s everywhere sometimes. He runs hard in transition and he does a great job of facilitating, setting up the offense, especially when he’s the primary ballhandler out there. We’re glad to have him back, and hopefully that’s a consistent thing.” 

Jazz slows SGA

Stopping Gilgeous-Alexander is a relative concept. 

A statistical glance suggests the Jazz hardly contained the Thunder guard Tuesday. He finished with 28 points, made 11 of his 22 shots and had seven assists to two turnovers. 

But Gilgeous-Alexander had nine points on 3-of-10 shooting in the second half, including four in the fourth quarter when he hit  1 of 4 shots. 

Utah used guard Kris Dunn — an excellent on-ball defender — on Gilgeous-Alexander for long stretches. But Dunn had help, not only from the Jazz’s frontcourt players at the rim but Utah’s zone. 

The changing defensive looks seemed to get Gilgeous-Alexander out of rhythm in the second half after a first half in which he scored 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting. 

“I thought they threw bodies at him as the game went on, especially in the third quarter,” Daigneault said. “So I thought it was it was schematic as much as it was a matchup. (Dunn’s) obviously a good individual defender that we respect, but Shai’s a great player, and to stop him and slow him down you got to put multiple guys on him. I thought that’s what they did.”

West race tightens

With losses Tuesday by the Thunder in Utah and the Timberwolves in Chicago, the top of the Western Conference got crowded. 

The Clippers (34-15) ended Tuesday technically atop the West, with the Thunder, Wolves and Nuggets (each 35-16) effectively tied with L.A. but trailing by percentage points. 

The Clippers have won nine of their past 10 games and 17 of their past 20 entering a Wednesday home game against the Pelicans. 

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index on Tuesday night projected the Clippers to finish with the top seed in the West by three games over the Thunder. 

As the Western Conference race picks up, OKC gets a chance to wind down. 

The Thunder doesn’t play again until Saturday at Dallas, marking the first time this season it’s had three days between games. OKC was scheduled to take Wednesday off before practicing Thursday and Friday. 

Daigneault called the off day “huge” and said the Thunder will use the time off and the practice days to “fill the tank a little bit and catch our breath and also sharpen up a couple things.” 

The price for that downtime is a truly weird weekend. 

OKC’s game at Dallas tips off at 2 p.m. The Thunder then heads straight home for another 2 p.m. start, Sunday at Paycom Center against the Sacramento Kings. 

Before that, though, Daigneault’s team will savor a rare break between game days. 

“It’ll feel a little bit weird,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Don’t get too many of them during the season. But it’ll feel good.”

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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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