How Chet Holmgren’s bounce-back assisted the Thunder’s comeback in Cleveland

How Chet Holmgren’s bounce-back assisted the Thunder’s comeback in Cleveland

Chet Holmgren called his NBA debut in Chicago “unacceptable.” He answered with a monster second outing to aid a Thunder stunner Friday night in Cleveland.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 28, 2023, 6:27am CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 28, 2023, 6:27am CDT

CLEVELAND — Chet Holmgren didn’t actually rewatch his entire NBA debut prior to Friday’s second outing. 

It only felt that way to the Thunder rookie. 

Because he watched so many clips of Oklahoma City’s Wednesday win over the Bulls. Because he saw so many mistakes, so many corrections he could make before the Thunder met the Cavaliers here at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. 

Mark Daigneault had been confident after Holmgren’s debut that the rookie would take something from it. A competitor and a learner, the Thunder coach called Holmgren, and he figured the studying would pay off. 

Still, it would have been hard to see Friday night coming. 

On a night full of surprises — the biggest a stunning OKC rally from 10 down in the final 2:25 to beat the Cavs 108-105 — Holmgren’s game-over-game growth jumped out. 

Holmgren scored 16 points. He grabbed 13 rebounds. He blocked seven shots, the single-game record for a Thunder rookie. 

And his 3-pointer with 1:03 to play tied the game at 102-102, setting up Lu Dort’s driving bucket a half-minute later to put OKC in front for good. 

“First game, I had zero blocks, and I had four rebounds,” Holmgren said. “And I just thought that was unlike myself. I hold myself to a standard and I feel like that was unacceptable.”

So he looked back at what happened in Chicago — “A lot of it’s about noticing patterns,” he said — and found corrections he could make. 

It paid off. Against the Cavaliers, Holmgren looked like the shot-swatting, space-covering defensive wizard he’d been at Gonzaga — and in the Thunder’s preseason games. 

Cleveland scored 48 points in the paint. It could have been more. Holmgren challenged everything around the rim (and elsewhere). He had eye-popping blocks, including one of driving Cavs center Evan Mobley with 1:29 to play — originally called a foul and overturned on video replay — that might have saved the game. 

Holmgren was not alone in his heroics.

Dort’s go-ahead bucket was the biggest shot of a 25-point night. And though Cavs star Donovan Mitchell put up 43 points — some of them with Dort as his primary defender — Dort harassed Mitchell into a midrange miss with 20 seconds to play that kept OKC in front. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t get to the free-throw line until the closing seconds of the game but still managed 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and a career-high-tying five steals.  

(Through two games, Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 65 points with seven free-throw attempts, hitting them all. It’s a notable number for a player who ranked third in the NBA last season with 10.9 foul-shot attempts per game.)

It took all of that and more for the Thunder to pull out an improbable win. Until the 2:25 mark of the quarter, OKC had scored 11 points in the fourth. In that closing stretch it went 5 for 5 from the floor — including 4 for 4 from the 3-point line — and made all four of its free throws. 

It was a team effort, and maybe — early as it came in an 82-game schedule — a significant one for Oklahoma City, a team coming off a Play-In Tournament appearance but looking to make a leap to the playoffs proper. 

On a night when the Thunder’s offense was “a little off,” Daignuealt said, it got on track just in time. No small feat for a team with five starters 25 years old or younger. 

“I just thought that was the best stretch of rhythm that we were able to create all night, which is encouraging that we could get it kind of on track at that point,” Daigneault said. “And that, in the face of a loss, we pulled together and did it together. That was impressive.”

There’s a long list of guys it couldn’t have happened without, but Holmgren’s near the top. His defensive versatility was on display. On one play he closed out to the left corner of the court, then when the ball swung to the right one, he covered the width of the court to contest there too. 

In another sequence, he blocked Mobley at the rim, controlled the ball and lead the break, hitting fellow rookie Cason Wallace for a 3-point shot in the corner. 

But when Holmgren is on his game the way he was Friday, it’s not just about the blocked shots and ballhanding highlights. Dort said that chasing offensive players through screens is easier when he knows Holmgren is the back line of defense for one who sneaks through to the rim. 

“Sometimes, you know, I just see (Holmgren) and I let the guy go because it’s gonna be tough for him to score over Chet,” Dort said. “Chet does a great job of that. He’ll be there for his teammates. And seven blocks is crazy.”

If it was seven. 

After the game, Holmgren tweeted at the NBA to double-check those numbers. 

After the game, he joked that he only wanted the NBA to “do their due diligence” but stressed that stats “have never been my main focus.”

“Just go check it,” he said. “If they they got it right, awesome. I mean, at the end of the day, the most important thing is we got we got the W tonight.”

It was an improbable one. And Holmgren played his part. 

There will be more nights like Wednesday in Chicago, when the Bulls’ more physical big men gave Holmgren fits. There will be games where he’s a step slow or his footwork fails him. 

But to see the growth in his first NBA week suggests there will be more nights like Friday, too. 

“He was who he needed to be for us to win tonight,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And it’s the second game in his career. He has a lot of getting better to do, and he will get better because he works hard.” 

 

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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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