Saturday’s game was a game of two halves with the Oklahoma City Thunder holding off the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 23-point rally to win 120-118.
In the first half, we saw the Thunder dominate Minnesota while playing beautiful basketball. The ball was flowing from one teammate to another and the Timberwolves could not keep up with the Thunder’s pace.
The second half was ugly; the offense devolved into a series of turnovers and bad shots. The Thunder were also atrocious defensively, the T-Wolves walked into too many good looks. The play in the second half was the complete opposite of the basketball that the Thunder played before the break.
Oklahoma City started the game really brightly and set the tone in the first quarter. The Thunder raced out to an 8-0 lead on the back of the aggressive defense. OKC forced two turnovers out of the Timberwolves during the first 90 seconds of the game and got two easy scores in transition.
That intensity defined the first quarter for the Thunder. Oklahoma City forced turnovers and played with pace. The Thunder consistently attacked in transition and semi-transition; the Timberwolves were not allowed time to set their defense up.
For that first quarter, the Thunder played smart basketball. Oklahoma City executed well on switches defensively and I thought the ball movement was excellent.
There was a real focus on finding the best quality look possible without slowing the game down too much. Oklahoma City’s strong play meant that the Thunder were up by 19 at the end of the first quarter.
The Thunder’s play improved even further in the second quarter. The motion offense installed by Coach Daigneault leaned heavily on inside-out play and this stretched the defense out.
There were numerous times when the guard made the entry pass to Muscala before cutting hard off the ball. That cut drew defensive attention and Mike was able to drive to the rim for good looks.
The inside-out play meant that Muscala got hot from the floor and knocked down every single shot that he looked. Muscala scored off the drive, from downtown and inside with surgical precision. It is the best quarter of basketball that Muscala has played since coming to Oklahoma City.
That scoring was supplemented by frequent trips to the stripe. Oklahoma City did a good job of drawing fouls and earning free points. The Timberwolves were often over-eager defending the drive; this allowed SGA to sell the contact and walk to the line for free throws.
The Thunder had one of the best first half that I can remember seeing; Oklahoma City went into the break having scored 83 points. Oklahoma City held a 21 point lead over the Timberwolves and had done all of the hard work in the first half.
Oklahoma City did not need to do anything amazing in the second half; all the Thunder had to was play smart basketball and maintain the lead.
The start of the third quarter presented plenty of bad omens for the Thunder. Naz Reid, the undrafted center out of LSU, kept on finding too many good looks inside. Darius Bazley was unable to stop Reid whenever he chose to back Bazley down. Reid ended up scoring 11 points in 150 seconds which severely dented the Thunder’s lead and gave the Timberwolves.
Reid’s mini-run changed the momentum of the game. Suddenly, the T-Wolves were playing with energy and were winning every single 50/50 ball. Minnesota had hope and the Thunder did very little to extinguish that hope.
The aggressive, engaged defense that we saw in the first quarter was gone. The Thunder were incredibly sluggish in the third quarter for reasons that I could not understand. Oklahoma City did not attack close-outs strongly and Minnesota was able to find some success from outside.
That sluggishness carried over to the offensive side of the game. The sharp, incisive ball movement had also fallen by the wayside.
The Thunder’s offense involved a lot of turnovers and bad shots. There were too many occasions when a loose dribble was seized upon by Jake Layman and the Timberwolves would get a transition scoring opportunity out of nothing.
The slow-paced offense did not benefit the Thunder at all. Minnesota was able to pack the middle and forced the Thunder into taking outside shots. The Thunder are not deadeyes from downtown; in fact, the Thunder are one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to 3-point efficiency.
Oklahoma City struggled to score inside and outside the arc hugely, the Thunder only scored 13 points in the third quarter.
The Thunder’s ailing offense and lackluster defense meant that the lead was only a one-possession game. Minnesota had chopped down a 21 point deficit to just 2 points. At the end of the third, the score stood at 96-94 and the final frame was going to be a dogfight.
For a long stretch in the fourth quarter, it seemed like the Thunder were going to lose. Oklahoma City was rushing offense without finding much success. The Thunder went 210 seconds in the fourth quarter without scoring a basket.
Conversely, Minnesota was heating up. Jake Layman knocked down a pair of threes which put the T-Wolves up by six with six minutes to play.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rose to the challenge and delivered one of his finest performances as a closer. Shai isolated on every single possession and went to work. Gilgeous-Alexander was able to score 13 points in the last five minutes despite the defense playing him aggressively. Shai’s scoring put the Thunder up by two with 5.5 seconds on the clock.
Nazreon Reid had been a thorn in the Thunder’s side throughout the whole of the second half. Coach Saunders wisely opted for Reid to take the final shot. Reid caught the ball with plenty of time left on the clock but Kenrich Williams was superb in slowing Reid and taking time off the clock.
Williams stifled Reid who settled for a floater that bounced off the rim. That stop won the game for Thunder 120-118.