What went wrong for the Thunder in Sacramento? Rebounding again, and a lot more

What went wrong for the Thunder in Sacramento? Rebounding again, and a lot more

The defense had breakdowns. The offense couldn’t make a shot, but OKC’s biggest issue remains its inability to keep opponents off the offensive glass.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 11, 2023, 6:29am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 11, 2023, 6:29am CST

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Chet Holmgren is hard not to watch. 

Between the blocked shots and the scintillating spin move and the occasional behind-the-back pass, the Thunder rookie — even as he’s stressed that he’s not trying to make this season The Chet Show — is doing must-see stuff. 

But as the Kings powered past the Thunder 105-98 in Friday’s In-Season Tournament game at the Golden 1 Center — becoming the latest team to batter OKC on the backboards — it was reasonable to wonder if Holmgren’s audience had grown a little too large. 

“I think a lot of that is us kind of getting comfortable finally having a big,” Thunder wing Jalen Williams said of OKC’s rebounding struggles. “A lot of guys probably, like myself, kind of get caught just watching.”

It looked that way sometimes on Friday, though Holmgren hardly was immune from failure to properly pursue rebounds. He fished with seven of them — matching guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for a team-high — but had his chances at more. 

“You can’t always control how the ball bounces off the rim, but you can control really keying in on the effort of hitting somebody on the glass,” Holmgren said. “ And I feel like me personally, I got to do a better job with that night in and night out.”

In a game where every possession mattered late, the Kings gave themselves extra ones by hitting the glass. Sacramento outscored OKC 23-6 in second-chance points. 

Through nine games, OKC (5-4) is grabbing 67% of its opponent’s misses. Only the woeful Washington Wizards have a worse defensive rebounding percentage. And though OKC took a step forward Wednesday, battling Cleveland to a 41-41 rebounding tie, Friday felt like two steps back. 

There were some bad bounces, sure — the Kings took 46 3-pointers and missed 33 of them, which creates ample opportunity for long-rebound chaos — but also plays where the Kings visibly outworked the Thunder on the glass. 

“If we don’t attack that weakness then our opponents are going to, and so we’ve got to look in the mirror on that,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “But it was one of a couple things that we could have done a lot better tonight.”

Among them, the Thunder could have:

* Defended better early. The Kings had a 34-20 lead after one quarter, shooting 54.2% from the floor in the first 12 minutes. OKC outscored Sacramento 78-71 from there, but the damage was done. 

* Locked in sooner on Domantas Sabonis. The former Thunder big man had a triple-double — 17 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists — and got 10 of those points in the first quarter. 

One of OKC’s struggles in a blowout loss last month against Denver, Daigneault said, was its inability to reset its help defense and put a crowd around Nikola Jokic after the Nuggets moved the ball and fed it to him. 

Sabonis plays a similar style, and though the Thunder “got to that with Sabonis on a lot of plays,” Daigneault said, it didn’t do so early.

* Made more shots — and dealt better with missing them. The Kings made four 3-pointers in that first quarter; OKC hit seven in the game. In a game that was mostly a defensive slog, the Thunder struggled to get in a rhythm, hitting 44.8% of its shots and 23.3% of its 3-pointers.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 33 points on 14-of-25 shooting, but the Thunder’s starters were a combined 2 for 12 on 3-point shots, with both makes coming from Lu Dort. 

Holmgren finished 5 of 12 from the floor, but in maybe his quietest night as a pro missed all three of his 3-pointers. Williams also was 0 for 3 from long distance, shooting 6 of 14 overall. 

The first quarter was particularly putrid, with OKC hitting 9 of 27 shots and 1 of 11 3-pointers. 

“I think we kind of let that affect our defense, and it’s hard to come back against good teams like that,” Williams said. 

There were other issues. The fast-paced Thunder’s inability to string together stops helped the Kings outscore OKC 13-11 in fast-break points. 

The Thunder bench shot a combined 6 for 21 from the floor. Forwards Jaylin Williams and Ousmane Dieng and guard Lindy Waters III combined for 45 minutes and no field goals. 

The Kings were “the more ready team” and “competed harder,” Daigneault said. 

The game was out of reach in the closing seconds, but still it felt fitting that the Kings capped the game with two offensive rebounds on their final possession. 

For all the Thunder’s faults Friday, the glass remains its most glaring. 

Oklahoma City is allowing 18 second-chance points per game, 29th in the NBA. Only the Lakers (19.4) are surrendering more. 

For a Thunder team outscoring opponents by a paper-thin half-point per 100 possessions, those extra buckets matter. And solving the issue remains OKC’s most pressing problem. 

It’s more than just leaving Holmgren alone to compete on the boards, but that might be part of it. 

The Thunder ranks sixth in the NBA in pace, and its smaller players are built for speed. That can lead to leaking out when an opponent’s shot goes up, Williams said, leaving the guys up front to pursue rebounds alone. 

Instead, guard Josh Giddey said, the Thunder guards need to “get that installed in us that when a shot goes up, we’re checking our guys and then we’re going to the glass to get rebounds.”

“Last year we had the same thing,” guard Josh Giddey said. “We were smaller, but I thought we rebounded the ball better. This year, we’ve obviously struggled with it. But we’ve watched a lot of film, we’ve gone over it a lot and kind of really emphasized it. So it’ll clean itself up, but it’s on us smaller guys and wings and guards to get in there and be physical, make our bigs’ life easier and help them out.”

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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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