The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves at home, 114-112. A game after barely hanging on vs the Jazz in Utah, the Thunder could not come up with enough key plays down the stretch to catch the Wolves. Minnesota, struggling as of late, was able to hold off the Thunder’s final push, preventing OKC from sending them to their 7th loss in 8 games.
The Thunder were led by Paul George, who finished with 31 points on 11-24 shooting, including 3-6 from three to go along with 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Russell Westbrook finished with his 9th triple-double of the season, recording 23 points on 10-19 shooting with 11 rebounds and 10 assists, but for the second night in a row, fouled out with the game on the line. The Wolves were led by Andrew Wiggins, who scored a team-high 30 to go with 6 boards and 5 assists.
(Aside — games like this are what drive Wolves fans and NBA fans at large crazy. Wiggins was arguably the best player on the court and hit the game winner, yet too often lacks the focus to be this kind of every-game star)
Although the game came down to the wire, this contest was really lost in the 3rd quarter, which may end up being forgotten due to the late game theatrics. OKC used a huge 2nd quarter surge, outscoring the Wolves 38-18 to erase a double-digit deficit and take a 10 point lead into the half. But due to a combination of poorly executed 3rd quarter offense and hot shooting by the Wolves, Minny reversed course. They shot 60% in the 3rd and 5-8 from three, while OKC struggled shooting the ball and turned it over 5 times (3 by Westbrook). Instead of entering the 4th with what should have been a comfortable lead, Wiggins scored the last 5 points of the quarter in the final minute of play, including a three with 19 seconds remaining to outscore OKC by 16 in the 3rd.
While the Thunder were certainly not out of it, the reversal meant they had to play catch up. Grinding down the lead to a single possession, the Thunder finally caught the Wolves with minutes to go. However, instead of OKC dropping the hammer defensively, the Wolves continued to find the open shots they needed to stay in the lead. In the 4th Minny hit 5-8 threes, including several clutch jumpers by Dario Saric and Robert Covington, to keep them in front.
Even with the Wolves hitting from long range, the Thunder hosted an insane block party, recording an incredible 9 blocks in the 4th alone to keep them in it. Westbrook, still struggling with his shot, utilized his speed and power to finish at the rim, scoring 11 on 5-8 shooting, including what was potentially the go-ahead layup with 23 seconds remaining. However, Wiggins had one more big drive in him (if not made free throws) and OKC was soon facing a one point deficit with 14 seconds to go. Which set up this play:
Instead of having George slip to an open side, Thunder had him go with a brush screen (PG just ran right through Covington). Everyone collapses on Russ so he kicks to Abrines. The key is Taj Gibson as soon as Russ turns the corner he's sliding into position to force that skip. pic.twitter.com/nOEf6YS002— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) December 24, 2018
With Westbrook coming off the brush screen by Steven Adams, who was essentially doing some Greco-Roman action with Karl-Anthony Towns, Russ had a clear path to receive the inbounds pass. He ran a cross-screen with Paul George, allowing Westbrook to turn the corner. At this point, it’s clear — this is a great play set, regardless of outcome.
That simple action has created scoring opportunities for Jerami Grant in the near corner (tough pass given Russ’ trajectory), George at the top of the key, slightly covered (moderate pass) and Alex Abrines, wide open on the far wing (easiest pass, wide open shot). Alex just missed.
A philosophical aside — this is the second open three Abrines has missed in near-identical play sets that could have won the Thunder the game (the previous one was a 4 point loss to the Pelicans). Should Alex have taken this shot? Or should Russ have trusted Grant, George, or someone else running the same pattern?
My personal take — I believe the answer is YES. Because this isn’t about December games. This is about building and developing practices that will solidify themselves in May and June. As coach Billy Donovan said in the post-game, it absolutely was the correct read:
Billy Donovan on Westbrook's pass to Abrines: "He without question made the right play."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) December 24, 2018
Does it matter that Abrines has now missed two in a row in these situations? Of course. But it matters far more that the Thunder are willing to put him in those situations even when he fails, because they need to know what options they have available in the spring when games really matter. The only thing I would argue is — don’t wait until game-deciding situations to run the play. Run them with Abrines earlier in the game, and often, until he starts to build the muscle memory he needs to knock them down with regularity. This is a good set — don’t abandon it because the wide-open look it created didn’t end with the result intended.
Lastly, I want to draw your attention to the final attempt by Paul George to tie the game:
The last set for the Thunder was a good attempt at misdirection to get George off an Adams pindown. The key was Towns giving Adams a bearhug like he was The Warlord. Couldn't get a piece of him. Abrines led him a little too far out as well. pic.twitter.com/uPTtOJrzvO— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) December 24, 2018
I agree with the tweeter — KAT did his Greco-Roman thing again, preventing Adams from setting a pindown screen on George’s man, thus preventing PG from getting a clean pass and a decent look at the rim.
Did KAT foul Adams with the hold? Sure. But it is important to recognize that in this situation, that foul is rarely called, and even less so when the playoffs arrive. The key to success in plays like this is, Adams has to be able to disengage (which to be sure could have been due to Adams’ apparent arm injury that trainers were working to address on the sideline) in order to give PG the space he needed for a clean catch and shoot.
It’s the little things that matter. Here’s hoping OKC doesn’t ignore the valuable lessons present in this loss.