The narrative heading into tonight’s matchup was that these two teams didn’t get to play the game they started out wanting to play 292 days ago because of COVID-19.
But the narrative coming out of the close, 1-point loss for Oklahoma City is how good the Thunder’s starting lineup is and how much Lu Dort’s offensive game has grown since March 11.
Dort set a regular-season career-high with 26 points that included going 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, and despite giving up the game-winner to Donovan Mitchell, did a fantastic job at sticking on him all game long as Mitchell scored just 20 points on 23 shots.
It seems Dort has a knack in these type of matchups of going up against high volume scoring guards, and that continued tonight.
On offense, whenever Dort had the ball, he seemed to know what he would do next. Dort is not scared to drive to the basket, and he is not scared to shoot from three. Dort has a level of confidence every young player needs if they are to develop any offensive skills.
When Dort is shooting well from three, it drives the basket that much easier for him. Tonight is an excellent example of this as Dort butterflied his way to the rim on multiple occasions and finished strong.
Unlike the last game, the potential game-winning shot did not fall for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a running layup, but that should not take away from his overall outstanding performance, outdueling his counterpart in Mitchell with 23 points and seven assists.
Shai’s passing game continued to impress tonight as he did a great job at finding open guys in the perimeter and timing his passes well on pick and rolls. There were some miscues, but those are expected growing pains.
After a quiet Thunder debut scoring-wise, Al Horford utilized his outside shooting by going 3-of-7 from downtown and finished with 11 points. A question going into this game was how the Thunder were going to use their stretch bigs in Horford and Mike Muscala as this is the first time in Gobert’s career that OKC has multiple stretch bigs that can play.
As it turns out, the Thunder made it a priority to use them and draw Gobert out to the perimeter. This is a smart strategy; Gobert’s strengths come in his rim protection; out in the perimeter, he essentially becomes a nonfactor on defense. Horford and Muscala shot a combined 6-of-14 from beyond the arc this game.
Speaking of Muscala, he continued his hot shooting as he finished with nine points on three threes. Playing Muscala in this game had its pros and cons. On one end, the Jazz spammed pick and roll with Gobert to get an easy shot around the rim; but on the other end, the Thunder were able to use Muscala’s spacing to lure Gobert out of the paint.
Muscala has been fantastic thus far this season; if he continues to play this way, then the possibility of the Thunder gaining assets for him becomes realistic.
After a couple of games about this team, a safe conclusion is that its starting lineup is good, but their bench struggles.
The only hope the Thunder have to improve their bench internally is that the young guys like Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon improve as the season progresses. In their second game, both rookies played well.
Pokusevski didn’t light up the stat sheet, but he did well on defense and used his length to his advantage to get a steal and a block. For Maledon, it still looks like he is adjusting to the NBA, which is understandable, but he did fair tonight with six points and two assists.
Overall, this is about as encouraging a loss can get. The Thunder could stay in it until the final shot against a squad that many view as a serious playoff team.
After the game, head coach Mark Daigneault mentioned that these games are valuable experiences for the team, and I agree. Playing close games can give young roster lessons that will help them grow on the court, regardless of the final result.
Next Game: The Thunder host the Orlando Magic in Oklahoma City Tuesday.