The Oklahoma City Thunder fell at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves, 119-117. For the second game in a row in OKC, the Thunder could not hang with a sub .500 team after getting embarrassed by the Wizards Sunday night. This time, they fell to a team who had fired their head coach a day before, and their interim coach, Ryan Saunders (son of the late Wolves coach Flip Saunders), was coaching the first NBA game of his life.
Also for the second game in a row against Minnesota, the Thunder fell to a Timberwolves team in the final seconds where, on one end the Wolves hit a clutch three, and on the other, OKC could not match, as Russell Westbrook and Paul George combined to miss 4 of 5 threes in the final 1:48. The Thunder shot 51% from the floor and a rare 40% from three, but careless turnovers and a ridiculous number of Wolves free throws laid waste the shooting effort.
The Thunder were led by Russell Westbrook, who finished with 25 points on 11-22 shooting to go with 16 assists. Steven Adams finished with 20-12, performing well against his ballyhooed counterpart Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with 20 and 9. Paul George once again struggled with his shot, finishing with 27 but on 9-24 shooting, including 5-13 from three. The Thunder trio also collectively committed 14 of the team’s 16 turnovers, 7 by Westbrook, and 5 of those came in the deciding 4th.
And here’s where I call back to one of my favorite recap lines.
Why the surprise? Because somehow Andrew Wiggins, perennial underachiever, 17ppg scorer, 40% shooter, who averages 4 free throws a game, somehow has now twice morphed into James Harden while playing at the Peake. Last time out, Wiggins finished with 30, which will happen from time to time. But tonight? Wiggins went to the line 18 times (making 16 for the 72% FT shooter) and finished with 40. In two games in OKC, Wiggins has scored 70 points, gotten to the line 28 times, and in both cases helped seal the deal in the end. Say it again, Clark.
This is the third game this season Andrew Wiggins has scored 30+ points. Two have come against the Thunder. It’s also his sixth game with 10+ FTAs, and two have come against OKC.— Brett Dawson (@BDawsonWrites) January 9, 2019
Secondarily, this was the second game in a row where the Thunder defense faltered, both in creating scoring transition opportunities (Wolves only committed 10 turnovers) as well as securing defensive rebounds. They gave up 6 offensive boards in the 4th quarter alone, including 2 in the final minute that ended in the Wiggins free throws that gave them their final lead.
Much will be made in the aftermath of this game at the apparent free throw disparity. The Wolves went to the line 40 times on the night (with Wiggins getting 18 of those) against 26 for the Thunder. While we can quibble to the end that Wiggins’ outlying number of trips made no sense at all (he has in fact played 7 games this season where he did not take even a single trip to the charity stripe), the real gripe to me seems to be that Westbrook and George, despite aggressive offensive play most of the night, went to the line 9 times combined. This to me is one of the most perplexing things of the season so far, as Westbrook in particular gets very little respect from the referees even when drawing contact. A a result, he’s shooting the lowest number of free throws since his 2nd season in the league, at only 5.1 attempts per game.
This tough stretch is not going to get any easier, as the Thunder must now play against the Spurs twice in a row. And with the Thunder loss, the Spurs at 24-17 only trail the Thunder by 1.5 games in the standings and have won 8 of their last 10. It suddenly feels like the beginning stretch of the season again for OKC, and there is precious little margin for error in the West.
We’ll keep you apprised of Nerlens Noel’s situation as we learn more.
Next game: @ San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8:30PM CST
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that, in Ryan Saunders’ first game as a head coach, he paid homage to his dad Flip Saunders, who passed away in 2015. Flip was a good coach for a long time, and son recognized dad’s contribution by calling Flip’s favorite play off the opening tip, called “452 Twist,” which resulted in a Wiggins make from the corner.