The Thunder continued to gain more control and momentum as each quarter passed, culminating in a ruthless run to start the fourth quarter in a blowout victory in Madison Square Garden.
The American flag was unfurled just before the Star-Spangled Banner was performed, and as the announcement of the color guard was made by the public address announcer inside Madison Square Garden, Thunder Chris Paul felt a wave of emotion come over him.
First responders from Oklahoma City and New York City who had been on the scene at both the 1995 Murrah Building bombing and the 9/11 attacks were joined together in a moment of solidarity and mutual respect. Paul and his teammates took off their warmup jerseys to reveal the team’s 2019-20 City Edition jerseys that honor the 25th Anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, marking the first occasion the Thunder has worn them on the road this season.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 7, 2020
“When we heard that announcement, I think everybody on our team felt an even more emotional response,” said Paul. “Those jerseys mean a lot to us in Oklahoma City and to have first responders from Oklahoma along with those here from New York, I think that was pretty special.”
Once game-play began, the Thunder’s defense was tested in a completely different way than it is on most nights but that didn’t stop OKC from routing New York to the tune of 126-103. The Knicks went just 4-of-24 from the three-point line for the game, missing its first 9 threes before finally hitting its first triple midway through the third quarter. Instead, the Knicks were deadest on attacking the paint at every opportunity.
They routinely set their screens lower than most NBA offenses, down below the three-point line. That allowed Knicks guards like Elfrid Payton and rookie RJ Barrett to sneak their way into the lane, and big men like Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson to fill up space in the paint for layups or second chances. The Knicks hung close with the Thunder and scored 36 points in the paint in the first half.
That pushed the Thunder to be even better in its help side defense, to pull across at the right time when they trapped Randle or Bobby Portis on the wing. In the second half and particularly during a late third quarter stretch, the Thunder did that to great effect, putting together multiple stops in a row.
“We just felt like we had to show a crowd the best we could and we were going to live with trying to get out to contest threes. We did both fairly well,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said.
In the meantime, the Thunder’s offense just kept on humming along. In a span of 50 seconds, Chris Paul found Danilo Gallinari for a pair of three-pointers, one coming on a behind-the-back pass, that the Italian sharpshooter and former Knick drained with ease. The buckets put the Thunder up by 20, a welcome payoff after inching its lead up from 7 after one quarter to 13 at halftime.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 7, 2020
“It’s something we’ve been doing since the beginning and something that in crucial moments we always go for,” said Gallinari. “I was just reading the defense.”
That connection between Paul and Gallinari has been there all season and tonight it boosted the Thunder’s stretch forward to a game-high 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting. For the season, Paul has assisted on 57 of Gallinari’s 163 total three-pointers (34.9 percent), good for the second-most of any duo in the NBA.
“Me and Gallo just talk about pace and setting screens,” said Paul. “When he sets screens and they switch, he takes it to the post. Or when two people guard me, you find him.”
“I get mad when Gallo misses,” Paul smirked. “I get really mad, because he’s not supposed to. When you throw it back to him and nobody’s there, you can just go the other way.”
The Thunder had built a substantial lead, but NBA fans know that games are never truly out of reach if there’s still 12 minutes left to play. OKC ensured there’d be no chance at a comeback though with its emphatic start to the fourth quarter. What started as a 13-0 run right out of the gates resulted in a 22-5 surge over the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, edging the Thunder’s lead up to 34 points.
The spurt was punctuated by a pair of ferocious dunks by Queens, NY native Hamidou Diallo, who stepped in to play 26 minutes and rack up a season-high-tying 12 points. Bursting into the rotation after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was nabbed for a couple early fouls, Diallo brought the energy in his hometown by attacking the glass, cutting hard and punishing the rim. He flushed one dunk on a pass from Adams then another from Paul for the point guard’s 12th assist, tying a season-high.br>
“(Diallo) finding those spots, those slashes, those dives, those quick cuts to the basket, we need that from him,” said Donovan.
Paul’s passing set up the play of the game as well, which occurred in the second quarter on a beautiful sequence of backdoor cuts. Paul drove towards the right wing, bouncing a pass to Gilgeous-Alexander who darted down the baseline towards the hoop. As a help defender crashed over, rookie two-way guard Lu Dort sliced into the lane from the left wing for one of the easiest Thunder baskets of the night.
“When there’s pressure being placed at the rim or somebody driving, they’re going to pull over. You’ve gotta try to find areas on the weak side to make some cuts and create an open gap for the next guy to pass to,” said Donovan. “Our guys on the backside got into some open areas and gaps where we could make some plays.”
Due to New York’s aggressive help-side defense, the Thunder was able to punish some overzealousness by playing heads up, team basketball. Hitting cutters right on time and on target was the reason OKC notched 26 assists for the game.
While piling up the assists, the Thunder managed to have one of its very best nights protecting the ball in team history. With a total of just four turnovers, OKC tied a season-best from January 20 at San Antonio. The team’s lowest ever turnover figure was back on March 5, 2013, when the Thunder had just two against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Paul was in complete control of the offensive flow, which always helps keep turnovers down, but he also had help as Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari and others did a nice job of attacking while maintaining control and making the simple play when it was required.
“I keep telling the guys we only have basically 20 more auditions before the playoffs. We gotta start building the right habits and making sure we’re getting ready for the stretch run.” –Chris Paul
“We put together some stops and were kind of able build on the lead. Guys did a nice job of closing the third and starting the fourth. We played well on both ends..” –Billy Donovan
The Thunder will aim to sweep this three-game east coast road swing with the final contest coming against the Celtics in Boston on Sunday evening. The Thunder will have a chance to hit 40 wins on the season and go to 16 games above .500, which would be the high-water mark for OKC this season.