Thunder defense makes strides in preseason rout of Damian Lillard and the Bucks

Thunder defense makes strides in preseason rout of Damian Lillard and the Bucks

Coach Mark Daigneault said this week defense is “black or white,” and OKC’s had been plainly bad. It was much better Tuesday, to the untrained eye and to Daigneault’s.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 18, 2023, 6:49am CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 18, 2023, 6:49am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — He makes it look easy, but Damian Lillard’s fadeaway jumper is anything but. It typically starts with a hard dribble, then a stop on a dime and a fade to create space. 

Lots of guys have it in their repertoire. Not many are better at getting it off. Or making it. 

And if you think that’s a challenge, try guarding it. 

But Chet Holmgren got one Tuesday night at Paycom Center. The Thunder rookie backpedaled on Lillard’s drive in the first quarter of a preseason game against the Bucks, then filled the space Lillard crated, extended his long right arm and swatted the shot out of bounds. 

It was one play, but it was emblematic of two things. 

First, Holmgren already is showing some progress as an NBA defender. He’s shown in steadily over the course of preseason, and it was apparent Tuesday. 

And second, the Thunder’s defense — shaky for much of this preseason — took a step forward against the Bucks. 

That’s just some of what was notable in OKC’s 124-101 win. 

Here’s what to take away from the Thunder’s penultimate preseason game: 

The defense listened 

Save your preseason qualifiers. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault made it clear this week that his team hadn’t guarded well enough this month, regardless of whether the results count. 

So yes, Milwaukee is missing some pieces and sure, the addition of Lillard meant Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. always were going to need some time to find a fit. 

But Daigneault said this week defense is “black or white,” and OKC’s had been plainly bad. It was much better Tuesday, to the untrained eye and to Daigneault’s. 

The Thunder was better on the ball. Its rotations were mostly solid. Milwaukee shot 39.6% and committed 16 turnovers. Lillard was 2 for 11 from the floor and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. 

“A lot of progress on that end of the floor,” Daigneault said. “Just looked like we knew what we were doing in our normal schemes. And then I thought our game plan execution on Lillard and Giannis was was pretty good. Made some mistakes, but intentions were there. Guys were trying to execute what needs to be done. I thought it was a nice step forward on that end.”

And it was yet another step in Holmgren’s continuing education. 

Antetokounmpo — with seven years and 46 pounds on Holmgren — powered through the rookie en route to a layup in transition. And Holmgren’s still-slight build means there will be physical mismatches. 

But after the game, Daigneault praised Holmgren’s “game plan execution” and lauded his ability to process “nuanced” pick and rolls, where his coverage will change based on personnel. 

Holmgren had to play higher on Lillard and to drop against other Bucks, and he showed “good intellect” in deciphering the difference, Daigneault said. 

“I love thinking through the game and having to think on the fly with things,” Holmgren said. “Things happen quick. You’re turning your head and seeing things and you have to be able to communicate to your teammates and act on certain situations in a split instance.” 

The starters surged

In addition to a defense that Daignuealt said “wasn’t totally clean” but set a “good baseline,” the Thunder looked sharp enough at the offensive end for Daigneault to call it “pretty good.” 

It was understandably staid praise for a preseason game, but the Thunder shot 56.5% from the floor, hit 18 of 39 3-pointers and assisted on 34 of 48 baskets. 

The OKC starters — Holmgren, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams and Lu Dort — combined for 71 points, and that was on a night when Gilgeous-Alexander made 4 of 12 shots.

Giddey had a team-high 19 points, a contrast to a game against Detroit last week in Montreal. Daigneault praised that performance, in which Giddey had four assists and five field-goal attempts, as “a great identity game” for the third-year guard, even if it didn’t yield significant stats. 

Giddey was aggressive in attacking the rim against Milwaukee, making 9 of 12 shots. 

“We’ve got guys that are so good with the ball in their hands that some nights other guys are gonna be cooking and some nights you’re gonna be cooking,” Giddey said. “It’s just understanding who’s got it going, what’s working that night. (Against) Detroit, other guys had it going and I’m more than happy to play that connecting role with that unit. And then tonight, I get downhill a little more, make a few more buckets.”

OKC is short on bigs

Near tipoff time, the Thunder announced the completion of a reported trade, acquiring — and immediately waiving — troubled guard Kevin Porter Jr. and two future draft picks for guard Victor Oladipo and forward/center Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. 

That was about two hours after Daigneault said that forward Jaylin Williams strained a hamstring in practice and will miss the start of the regular season next week. 

Jaylin Wiliams will be evaluated in two weeks, Daigneault said. 

Williams’ absence, a preseason ankle injury to Aleksej Pokusevski and the trade of Robinson-Earl leave OKC shorthanded up front behind Holmgren, and likely to stay that way through next Wednesday’s season opener in Chicago. 

The Thunder is comfortable going small — with Holmgren out due to injury, it did so often last season — and has some options up front. Against the Bucks, Daigneault used two-way player Olivier Sarr for 13 minutes, including some in a big lineup alongside Holmgren. 

Sarr responded with seven points and seven rebounds.

“We wanted to take a look at that, and I thought it was pretty good,” Daigneault said. “It takes a little time getting used to for them. But they’re both really active. They both have great range defensively in terms of ground that they can cover. They both rim protect. They both rebound. So I thought it yielded some of that defensively.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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