Thunder defense makes strides in win against Hawks, but issues linger

Thunder defense makes strides in win against Hawks, but issues linger

The Thunder hounded Trae Young into a poor shooting night. But OKC’s defensive rebounding issues remained.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 7, 2023, 6:24am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 7, 2023, 6:24am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Chris Tucker was hard to miss. 

The “Rush Hour” star wore a sequined black blazer that sparkled in the Paycom Center lights, and he watched the Thunder beat the Atlanta Hawks 126-117 Monday night from a seat across the court from the OKC bench. He was announced and shown on the oversized video screens. He threw t-shirts to Thunder fans during a timeout. 

Mark Daigneault didn’t notice. 

“I’m more worried about the rebounding,” the Thunder coach said. 

Even on a night when his team’s defense showed genuine growth, when it held the Hawks to 37.3% shooting and 14-of-42 3-point shooting, when it forced 15 turnovers and scored 32 fast-break points, Daigneault was too distracted to catch a glimpse of the world-famous actor/comedian 50 feet away. 

Because of the rebounding. 

The Hawks grabbed 25 offensive rebounds, and only some missed opportunities — and some stingy Thunder defense — prevented them from pouring in more than their 19 second-chance points. 

Atlanta missed 64 shots and OKC had 38 defensive rebounds. That resulted in the Thunder falling to 29th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage. They’re pulling in 67.4% of opponents’ missed shots. The league-leading Knicks snag 79.3%. 

“We know we struggle there, we have struggled there so far this season,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It’s a point of emphasis for us. We’re not blind. We can feel it. We all know that if we want to be who we can be we have to take care of that.”

Gilgeous-Alexander did his part. 

The All-NBA guard, who missed the Thunder’s previous game with a sprained knee, returned to the lineup to score 30 points and dish six assists. But he also grabbed seven of his eight rebounds at the defensive end. 

Gilgeous-Alexander has never averaged more than 5.2 defensive rebounds in a full season. He’s at 6.3 after Monday’s game, and though he called rebounding “a five-man job,” he’s taking on added responsibility. 

OKC needs it. 

Still, outside of another opponent’s glass-kicking effort, there were some encouraging signs from the Thunder on Monday. Gilgeous-Alexander’s return was chief among them, and not just because of his buckets or boards. 

The 6-foot-6 guard played a key role in a Thunder defensive effort that limited Atlanta’s Trae Young to 5 of 18 shooting and forced him into seven turnovers. The former University of Oklahoma star did most of his damage at the free-throw line, where he hit 11 of 11 to account for half his 22 points. 

That was a team effort, but Gilgeous-Alexander played a major role. He wasn’t available to pitch in defensively Friday when the Warriors beat the Thunder 141-139. 

“He’s been an impact defender now for a long time for us,” Daigneault said. “So you feel it when he’s not out there defensively.”

His presence at both ends was apparent Monday, but he had lots of help. 

Offensively, Lu Dort pitched in 19 points and Jalen Williams 21. Chet Holmgren couldn’t find his shot but had 16 points despite 4-of-14 shooting. 

And defensively, the Thunder mostly showed good discipline on Young, running a variety of bodies at him and funneling him toward help defense — often Holmgren — that have him obstacles to pass over and around. 

“I thought there were a couple plays where the decisions were difficult for him, which is I think something that you have to do is keep him on his toes,” Daigneault said. “Don’t give him the same dose of the same defense over and over again because he’s obviously a savvy player.”

He wasn’t the only Hawk who struggled. 

De’Andre Hunter was 1 for 7 from the 3-point line. Jalen Johnson went 0 for 4. The Hawks went 6 for 22 from behind the 3-point line in the first half. 

Atlanta shot 6 for 22 on second-chance opportunities, some shots around the rim that Holmgren and other Thunder players contested, some good looks from the outside that misfired. 

OKC contests 55.3 shots per game, most in the NBA, and it contested 59 of Atlanta’s on Monday. 

That all is cause for encouragement. 

And if the Thunder could have grabbed 10 more rebounds, maybe Daigneault could have relaxed a little, could have glanced across the floor to see that the guy from “Friday” was there. 

“When you give up 25 (offensive rebounds) to any team on a given night, you got to look at those plays,” Daigneault said. “We got to get guys in the rebounding area. We’ve got to hit. We got to go get the ball. Obviously. That was not great.”

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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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