In a rambunctious pre-All-Star Weekend environment, the Thunder made it a clean four-game season-series sweep against the Pelicans with some timely shot-making, disruptive defense and resilience up and down the roster.
Since the beginning of February the Thunder’s defense has mostly determined the outcome of its success, and a matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans made for a very clear distinction between what works for OKC and what doesn’t. Head Coach Billy Donovan has been keen on transition defense over the past few days following back-to-back losses for OKC for the first time since mid-January.
Against the high-paced Pelicans, who rack up the third-most possessions per game in the NBA, the Thunder’s defense was stellar when it got back in transition and engaged New Orleans players in a solid position at the three-point line or below. The Thunder had problems however when it was still tracking back in transition, matching up around half court or not at all. In those situations, the Thunder got to chasing the action and that resulted in layups, open threes or in particular, foul calls against OKC.
Despite an efficient scoring night for the Thunder, an advantage in the paint and some dominating bursts, like the one Mike Muscala had in the third quarter as a part of a 14-0 Thunder run, this game had a season-high 22 lead changes to go with 12 ties.
“It felt good. I think I have to shout out the coaching staff and all the players on the team. We pride ourselves on staying ready and putting in the work,” said Muscala, who scored 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting.
Clutch time has been the Thunder’s comfort zone for the last 10 weeks and once again OKC got the job done in the closing minutes. With 4:08 remaining in regulation Head Coach Billy Donovan called timeout, ready to orchestrate a closing surge to overcome a slight one-point deficit. Down 111-110, the Thunder got the ball to Danilo Gallinari on the right block and he posted up, attacked middle and hit a fading jump shot from the lane.
5 consecutive points from @gallinari8888 and it’s a Close game alert
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 14, 2020
After a steal by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder got the ball right back to Danilo Gallinari, who rattled home a three-pointer to give the Thunder a four-point lead. On the next defensive play for the Thunder, Adams blocked a Zion Williamson layup, then tapped the rebound out to the sideline where rookie two-way guard Lu Dort saved the ball in bounds, diving into the Thunder bench to make the play.
Two possessions later Pelicans guard JJ Redick sank a response three-pointer to make it just a one-point game again. Gallinari hit two free throws on the ensuing possession, and the Thunder’s defense stood tall to get three straight stops, holding New Orleans to just one point over a span of four possessions. Steven Adams dropped in a push shot from a Gilgeous-Alexander pass to extend OKC’s lead to five, then Gallinari drove on the left side of the floor, stopped on a dime and buried a jumper to seal the deal on a 29-point effort on 12-of-18 shooting. With the win and 3-of-5 shooting from three, Gallinari has made two or more threes in 43 of the 47 games he’s played. He’s been so automatic and scored so easily that his teammates want to start calling him “dormo venti”: 20 (points) in his sleep.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 14, 2020
With less than three seconds remaining before halftime, the Thunder inbounded the ball under its own basket. Adams checked his receivers down court before slipping a pass into the backcourt to Paul. Quickly doubled, the Thunder point guard slung the ball over his head to the big Kiwi center and Adams caught the ball and, casual as you like, tossed it with one hand from behind half court directly through the hoop.
The bucket was Adams’ first made three-pointer of his career and as the ball splashed through the hoop he couldn’t help but unleash a massive shoulder shimmy as his Thunder teammates mobbed him with hugs of congratulations. The heave was a mood shifter, but also important to give the Thunder a 66-58 halftime lead. That extra cushion came in handy.
“We had a competition yesterday, half-court shots amongst the lads. I ended up winning that one because I did the exact same shot,” said Adams. “I don’t know. It just managed to go in today. As you could tell, I was hyped. After the shot went in, I kind of blacked out.”
When Steven Adams makes his first career three-pointer, you look at THE SHOT again from every angle.
— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) February 14, 2020
Turnovers forced by the Thunder, which mostly occurred when OKC got back across half court, settled its defense and forced the Pelicans to execute against it. Paul, Adams, Gallinari and Abdel Nader all got hands in passing lanes, sat down low in their stances to deflect dribbles and were on the spot to grab loose balls as well. As a result, the Thunder was able to disrupt New Orleans’ offense just enough to offset the Pelicans’ 14 three-pointers and the 16 second chance points.
“The turnovers allowed us to hang around,” said Donovan.
“We’ve been in that situation probably more than any other team this season, so we already know we are going to be in a close game.” –Chris Paul
“The game changes quickly because of number of possessions, and they keep playing and keep playing to their identity and their style. We found a way to make enough plays there at the end.”–Head Coach Billy Donovan
As Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander head to Chicago for All-Star Weekend to represent Oklahoma City during all three nights of the festivities, the rest of the Thunder squad will get the full allotment of days off during the break and reconvene late next week before hosting the Denver Nuggets on Friday, February 21st.