The Thunder’s game against the Hornets was hugely entertaining to watch and it looked like the Thunder would cruise to a victory as the fourth quarter wound down. Oklahoma City were up by thirteen points with just two minutes left on the clock; the game appeared to be in hand. The Thunder eventually won but the final score was much closer than it needed to be.
OKC escaped Charlotte with a 109-107 win; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander knocked down a long two in the last ten seconds of the game to snatch the win. However, the last 110 seconds of play were dogged by carelessnesses and missed free throws.
James Borrego, the Hornets’ head coach, had displayed his tactical acumen throughout the game. Charlotte were adaptable as they switched through man to man coverage, zone and full-court pressure. Borrego opted for the press late in the game and that decision almost won Charlotte the game.
The Hornets pressured Shai on the inbounds twice which resulted in quick scores for Hayward and Rozier. Oklahoma City were still leading by double digits at the point but the mood definitely seem to shift. The Thunder looked nervous as the team attempted to navigate the swarm of Hornets who were eating up the space needed to complete the inbounds pass.
Those nerves were exacerbated by Bazley’s turnover on the inbound play; his error did not result in a bucket for the Hornets but it was clear that Oklahoma City were on wobbly legs. From that point onwards, the Hornets had the momentum and hit a hot streak from deep that made life very uncomfortable for the Thunder.
Miles Bridges did very little for the first three quarters but he erupted for three clutch makes from deep in the last 24 seconds of the game. Bridges’ shooting put the Hornets in position to take the game to overtime; a probability that would be unbelievable when you consider that the Thunder were leading the game by thirteen with two minutes to go.
Gilgeous-Alexander had a horrible end to the game. He turned the ball over too much and he missed free throws that he would usually make. Those misses at the stripe brought the game back into reach for the Hornets; a two-possession lead is not a strong position to have late in games.
It would have been very easy for Shai to turtle up but he showed grit and resolve as he knocked down the game-winner despite being rocked a few times. Shai’s attitude at the end of the game is the sort of growth that I wanted to see out of him. Gilgeous-Alexander displayed a willingness to take on responsibility when the game matters most; that is the behaviour of a leader.
Oklahoma City played a very good game before that mad, careless two-minute spell at the end of the game. The defensive intensity was hugely impressive and Oklahoma City’s aggressive work on that end of the floor suffocated the Hornets’ offense. However, good play for 46 minutes does not win games; the team has to perform at that high level for all 48 to accumulate victories.
The Thunder’s issues at the end of game stemmed from panic and a lack of simplicity on the inbounds play. Oklahoma City were determined to inbound the ball to one of the awaiting ball-handlers despite Charlotte’s trap. The Hornets executed the press very well and consistently put themselves in a position to double the lead ball-handler.
One of the better ways to bypass a full-court press is to play vertically and toss the ball over the press. A pass from the backcourt to someone like Al Horford or Luguentz Dort would have been risky but it would have relieved pressure. At the very least, the vertical option was relatively simple and would have allowed the Thunder to take time off the clock.
It would be a good idea for Coach Mark Daigneault to work on scheming this action as an emergency option. In tight games, there are coaches in the NBA who like to aggressively trap and force turnovers. Oklahoma City have to be prepared for these situations.
Gilgeous-Alexander would also benefit from practice time where he focuses on facing doubles. In his professional career, Shai had not faced a double until the game against Charlotte. That lack of experience meant that he committed costly turnovers that were avoidable.
The Hayward steal was particularly avoidable; Gordon was able to swipe the ball away from Shai from a position where he was unsighted by SGA. A more experienced player would have shielded the ball better when facing two defenders. Chris Paul is brilliant at this particular skill.
Paul is excellent at using his body to protect himself against the defense so that he can continue running the offense. Gilgeous-Alexander needs to pick up the phone and pick Chris’ brains; SGA improving this aspect of his play will make him more reliable late in games.