Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rose up to contest DeAndre Ayton as the Phoenix center soared to the basket for a slam.
After tauntingly hanging on the rim for three seconds, the referees called a technical foul on Ayton. Despite Gilgeous-Alexander draining the free throw, Ayton’s emphatic slam was the exclamation point that finished the Oklahoma City Thunder (11-20) on Thursday night, ultimately leading to the Suns’ (26-5) 113-101 victory.
Still, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault was impressed with his team’s effort.
After trailing by nearly 15 points in the second quarter, OKC rallied back to lead 48-45 at halftime. During that time, Oklahoma City used paint scoring to its advantage, outscoring the Suns 48-34 in the paint on the night. If it weren’t for a 25-9 Phoenix run in the third quarter, the Thunder might have hung on.
“I thought we really fought, and that’s what’s so encouraging (about) our team,” Daigneault said. “When we’re faced with challenges it seems to bring out a spirit that these guys see challenges and opportunities. … If you shy away from those challenges as a threat, the NBA will chew you up and spit you out, and we don’t have a team that does that. We have a team that when faced with challenges when we get knocked down, our team sees it as an opportunity and a challenge (to get back up).”
Gilgeous-Alexander struggled beyond the arc for the third straight game.
Before nailing his first 3-point jumper with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter, he was 0-for-13 from deep since his buzzer beater against the Clippers on Dec. 18. Nonetheless, he was able to finish the night with a team-leading 29 points on an efficient 10-for-20 shooting and a 2-of-5 total from 3. The Toronto, Ontario, native also poured in another efficient night from the free throw line, going 7-for-7.
“We play hard in order to (get past) a little bit of sluggish start,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We continue to take the best shots, and get into the paint when the shots aren’t falling (from 3). We just have to be aggressive, and we obviously have to work hard. We just have to continue to take the best shots that we can take.”
Daigneault’s experiment with bringing forward Darius Bazley off the bench continued to work.
Bazley led the team with 10 rebounds, alongside eight points, a steal, and a block. Bazley’s effort on defense helped the Thunder force 13 turnovers, which translated into 22 points.
Oklahoma City’s rookie guard duo of Josh Giddey and Tre Mann helped set the tone offensively.
Giddey, for the third game in a row, notched a double-digit scoring night with 17 points on a 7-for-17 night, and went 1-for-4 from deep.
Mann struggled offensively, scoring only four points on 2-for-8 shooting, but his ball pressure helped collapse Phoenix’s defense in the paint. While the two had completely opposite nights from the field, their offensive success will be pivotal for the Thunder’s success in the future and rest of the season.
As Oklahoma City pivots to its next game against the New Orleans Pelicans at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 26, in New Orleans, Giddey and his teammates are taking away morale victories from tough, close games and using them as a learning experience.
“Earlier in the year, that 15-point lead would’ve turned into 30 points,” Thunder forward Josh Giddey said. “But, now we’ve been able to come back from a lot of games. To see where we’ve come from is definitely a step in the right direction. Obviously there’s still room for improvement.”