The Oklahoma City Thunder made it into Memphis just in time for tip-off—an hour and a half to be exact—, and despite the Grizzlies also playing in the second game of a back-to-back, they had the advantage of being at home. Perhaps that was all the advantage they needed as they dropped the Thunder 122-113.
Welcome Back, Shai
After missing 4 straight games with a sprained knee, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made his return to the court for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he put together a solid performance. For much of this season, SGA has focused on distributing the ball and not forcing too many shots, and tonight was a prime example of that mindset.
On top of scoring a team-high 22 points, Shai handed out 6 assists, which is just a tick under his season average. His ability to knock down shots from just about anywhere on the court has made him a target for double teams, and his court vision has continued to improve to a point where he continually finds the open man.
Yeah, that’s a bounce pass. pic.twitter.com/sy9vKbNBih— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 18, 2021
Gilgeous-Alexander could have shot the ball better, knocking down just 6-of-14 (42.9%) shot attempts, but at the same time, he probably could have taken more shots to begin with. Again, he hasn’t really forced the issue, scoring when he needs to, but perhaps the Thunder would have been in a better position to win if he had gotten up a few more shots.
Tired Legs Lead to Turnovers and Transition Troubles
Playing in the second game of a back-to-back is rarely easy, and on top of that, the Thunder had to deal with travel issues. Winter weather in OKC pushed the Thunder’s departure time back from last night to today, and they essentially went straight from the airport in Memphis to FedExForum to get ready for the game. Not so coincidentally, the Thunder struggled in a few key areas.
One issue that always seems to arise with young teams is turnovers, and at 14.5 giveaways per game, the Thunder is in the bottom of the league. Add fatigue to the mix, and you typically get tonight’s result: 18 turnovers that were turned into 23 Memphis points. That’s a tough hurdle to overcome, even when you force 13 turnovers for 17 points yourself.
Another area that hurt the Thunder tonight was transition defense. Entering the matchup with Memphis, OKC led the NBA in transition defense, allowing just 9.7 fast break points per game. Tonight, however, the Grizzlies were able to get out and run, mostly because of the forced turnovers, and they were able to score 16 fast break points.
While it’s easy to blame these issues on fatigue, they should serve as teaching moments that the Thunder should improve and look to avoid later down the line.
Thunder Unsung Hero of the Game
Every active player on the roster played tonight, and everybody scored. For me, it was Théo Maledon who played an incredibly significant role, though.
At just 19 years old, it’s easy to take the rookie from France for granted. Yes, he’s an NBA player, but by a lot of standards, he’s still basically a kid. Just look at the guy, and his baby face will have you convinced. Against the Grizzlies, however, he stepped up to the plate and did what it took to compete.
Maledon played 34 minutes against Memphis, scoring 14 points while knocking down 4-of-5 (80.0%) shots from downtown. He also grabbed 5 rebounds, handed out 2 assists, and snagged 2 steals. He’s young, but I expect him to be an impact guy for the Thunder for a long time.
Friday Night Lights
Next up for the Thunder is a road matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks, a team OKC defeated just a few days ago. OKC gets tomorrow off, but Milwaukee hosts Toronto for the first game of a back-to-back, meaning the Thunder will be the fresh team on Friday night.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM and will be broadcast on Fox Sports Oklahoma. It will also be broadcast on the radio on WWLS 98.1 FM.