Josh Giddey stars against Detroit but says he’s ‘matured’ in team-first approach

Josh Giddey stars against Detroit but says he’s ‘matured’ in team-first approach

Giddey forced the issue against the Pistons, and when he’s able to do that, it can change the way the floor looks for the Thunder. A defense forced to “respect that drive,” Holmgren said, will react. And when Giddey can attack the rim, he can score or create for others.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Oct 31, 2023, 6:31am CDT

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Oct 31, 2023, 6:31am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — It might sound like a cliche when Josh Giddey says he’s focused on winning. When the Thunder point guard tells you he puts the team’s performance over his individual numbers, it might seem like the same team-first player platitude you’ve heard hundreds of times before.

But give Giddey this: After his 21-point, seven-rebound get-right game Monday in the Thunder’s 124-112 win against the Detroit Pistons at the Paycom Center, he admitted he had to learn to be this way.

“How you play has to come second to the team, and I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that are buying into that,” Giddey said. “And at least in my experience, it wasn’t always that way for me, personally.”

It’s not so much that the 21-year-old — a dazzling passer who’s averaging 6.2 assists in his NBA career — has played selfishly.

It’s just that he’s had to learn to accept that some nights he’ll be terrific and other nights he’ll be terrible, and if his team wins it doesn’t much matter which.

“There’s times (in the past) where you win and you don’t play great and it’s hard to kind of balance,” Giddey said. “You want to be happy for everybody, but it’s also like you want to play well. I think now I’ve matured in the way that the team always comes first. Good game, bad game — you win, you’re happy for everybody.”

The Thunder (3-1) had reasons to celebrate Monday.

The Pistons (2-2) aren’t the Nuggets, the reigning champs who dismantled OKC here Sunday. Detroit is an improving, competitive team with a big, physical front line.

The Thunder were supposed to beat them Monday, and a single win against the Pistons maybe doesn’t amount to much.

But the way OKC corrected so many of its Sunday slip-ups was a positive sign.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander bounced back from a 2-for-16 shooting performance against Denver to hit 11 of 23 shots against Detroit en route to a 32-point, nine-rebound, four-assist night.

The Thunder defense — which too often Sunday left rookie Chet Holmgren on an island against Nuggets superstar center Nikola Jokic — sent swarming help to Detroit’s Jalen Duren. He entered the game averaging 18 points and 15.3 rebounds on 80% shooting and managed eight and seven against OKC, hitting 4 of 11 shots.

And Giddey, who shot 4 for 13 against the Nuggets on the heels of a 1-for-8 night at Cleveland last Friday, got on track in the fourth quarter against the Pistons after a middling first three.

The 6-foot-8 guard took advantage of an undersized Detroit backcourt, driving hard downhill and scoring 13 fourth-quarter points on 6-of-8 shooting.

He “stayed on the gas,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, helping OKC lead by as many as 21 points in the fourth.

Giddey, who entered the game shooting 34.3% from the floor, hit 9 of 18 shots. All nine makes came in the paint.

“In the grand scheme of things, his shooting percentage in the first four games really doesn’t matter,” Daigneault said. “But the skill of being able to work yourself through it does, and that’s scalable and it’s an important skill for him and everybody else.”

Giddey worked through it by working over the Pistons guards. Detroit guarded him at times with 6-2 Marcus Sasser or 6-4 Jaden Ivey, who lack the size and physicality to keep him from getting to and scoring at the rim.

Chip Engelland, the Thunder shooting coach charged with improving Giddey’s long-range shot, is the one who’s stressed to him the importance of playing bully ball around the basket.

“He’s big on touch around the room and things like that,” Giddey said. “And he was one of the guys that said, ‘You’re you’re big for a guard, and if the teams are gonna put these smaller guys on you, take advantage of it.”

Giddey forced the issue against the Pistons, and when he’s able to do that, it can change the way the floor looks for the Thunder. A defense forced to “respect that drive,” Holmgren said, will react. And when Giddey can attack the rim, he can score or create for others.

“Really opens up the floor, and we’re grateful to have Vanilla Magic out there doing his thing,” Holmgren said. “And when that when help comes, he sprays it out and finds the open guy, so we love playing with him.”

The feeling seems to be mutual.

Giddey talked repeatedly in preseason about the Thunder’s willingness to do the right things to win. He’s lauded his teammates’ competitiveness and called OKC’s openness to individual sacrifice “the best thing” about the team.

To that end, he’s unconcerned with his numbers. Even the good ones he put up Monday. He’s honed that mental approach the same way he’s worked on the on-court parts of his game.

“I think that’s something I’m really trying to grasp and that’s something I’ve really matured into, even throughout the preseason,” Giddey said. “To me, it’s irrelevant how I play. If we win games, I’m happy, and that’s what matters right now. I think that’s a really important thing for guys around the around the group to buy into, and I think that goes a long way to having a successful team.”

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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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