The Oklahoma City Thunder did what they do best and played yet another close game on Wednesday night as they picked up a 102-97 win on the road against the Phoenix Suns.
Shai = Clutch
Monday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers was unnecessarily close. Despite a sizable lead in the end, a couple of Damian Lillard threes put the Blazers right back in. Still, they had to foul to get back in it, and with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the free throw line, the win should have been automatic, but it kind of wasn’t.
OKC was able to come out on top, but it was a little too close for comfort. SGA knocked down just 3-of-8 (37.5%) free throw attempts in the final 31.4 seconds. The Thunder ended up winning by just 3 points.
True stars are clutch whenever their team needs them, and in order to be clutch, you have to knock down free throws. Shai wasn’t exactly clutch on Monday night, and it looked like he was going to fall into the same pattern on Wednesday against the Suns.
With under 5 minutes to play, SGA went to the free throw line 4 times in 20-second span, and again he struggled to knock down shots. He made 2 of the 4 attempts, which tied OKC with Phoenix instead of giving the Thunder the lead. I thought for sure the misses were going to come back to haunt the Thunder.
Shai was given a chance to redeem himself in the end, however, as Phoenix was forced to foul at the end of the game, much like Portland had to do just two days ago. This time, SGA rose to the occasion as he knocked down all 4 of his free throw attempts in the final 17.8 seconds of the game, sealing the win for the Thunder.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is only in the third year of his NBA career, but because of his leadership role with the Thunder, it’s easy to forget just how young he is. Still, OKC desperately needs him to step up in clutch moments and do what it takes to get the win, and tonight, he was able to do just that.
Daigneault Deserves Some Credit
I’ve been hesitant to comment on Mark Daigneault’s quality of coaching thus far, mostly because he’s barely had a chance to do much of anything. We’re still early in the season, and I’m sure the Thunder is still very much discovering an identity under the new head coach, but after 17 games, I’m ready to say it: Daigneault is doing a pretty dang good job.
Navigating a rebuild/tank season cannot be easy as a first-time head coach in the NBA, but so far, he’s looked solid. Daigneault has not been afraid to mix it up with the lineups, going so far as to make some type of history on Monday when his starting lineup against the Portland Trail Blazers (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Théo Maledon, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, and Isaiah Roby) was the 7th youngest in NBA history.
Far too often in Thunder history have Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan been criticized for not being willing to experiment with different lineups, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “I wish ________ would get more playing time.” Well, Coach Daigneault is taking every opportunity to let just about everyone get a chance to shine, and so far this season, it’s worked out in his favor as a number of young fellas—Roby and Maledon specifically come to mind—have put together some impressive performances.
Congrats to Al Horford
OKC big man Al Horford made his return to the Thunder after missing two weeks due to the birth of his fourth child. As a father of 4 myself, I can appreciate Horford taking the time to be with his family.
In his return, it appeared as if Horford had not missed a beat. He tied a career-high with 5 made threes, knocking down 100% of his attempts, and he finished the game with 21 points, a season-high 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, and a block. In the process, he reached 12,000 career points, an incredible milestone.
Horford is one of the lone veterans in OKC, and I’m not sure how long he’s going to be around, but however long that is, Thunder fans should thank their lucky stars for him, because he is an absolute gem.
Thunder Unsung Hero of the Game
Any time a second round draft picks makes his way into the starting lineup, it should be marked down as impressive. I remember Luguentz Dort, an undrafted free agent, making his first NBA start, and now another young guy is getting a chance for OKC as Théo Maledon has filled in twice now for the injured George Hill.
In his second NBA start, Maledon put together an impressive performance for a guy who is still learning the ways of professional basketball. In his 30 minutes of play, he scored 11 points on 4-of-7 (57.1%) from the field, including 3-of-6 (50.0%) from three-point land. He also had 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal, while only turning it over twice.
I know we’re still early into the season, but Maledon is looking more and more like another draft steal by Thunder GM Sam Presti. And give Daigneault the credit for his willingness to take a chance on putting the rookie in the starting lineup, and maybe even more credit for letting him finish the game on the floor.