PHOENIX — Sometimes Lu Dort or Jalen Williams would guard Kevin Durant straight up. Sometimes a Thunder teammate would come to help, to give Durant another target to shoot over, or maybe to trap and try to get the ball out of the Suns star’s hands.
Durant got different looks throughout the Thunder’s 111-99 win Sunday over his Phoenix Suns. That was part of Mark Daigneault’s plan, but the OKC coach wasn’t always the one making the call.
Often, Daigneault said, Thunder players would read the game and decide in the moment: Do we double Durant here? Where’s it coming from?
“He lets us walk through the fire,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Lets us figure it out. Lets us play off our feel. We have a lot of guys on the team that can and have a high basketball IQ.”
Daigneault hasn’t always been this way.
When he coached the Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate, “we had, like robots,” Daigneault said. And though they were “really, really good robots,” he said, the adherence to a set game plan meant “there were times where we could get outsmarted.”
This Thunder team is different.
On Sunday at the Footprint Center, it showed how different it can be.
Sure, the Thunder makes youthful mistakes. It made some against the more veteran Suns.
But OKC outscored Phoenix 31-13 in the fourth quarter, led by a dialed-in defense — the Suns hit 2 of 21 shots in the period — and superb shot-making. Gilgeous-Alexander scored 14 of his 35 points in the fourth; Williams had eight of his season-high 31.
Rookie Chet Holmgren threw in eight of his 18 points and four of his six rebounds in that final 12 minutes, capping perhaps his most disruptive defensive night of the season. The Thunder outscored the Suns by 27 points in his 33 game minutes.
It was, in effort and execution, a sometimes-confounding contrast to OKC’s performance two days earlier, an uninspired loss to the Kings in Sacramento. And it’s easy to chalk up the inconsistency to youth.
But the Thunder would rather you didn’t.
The reason Daigneault is giving his team more freedom to make defensive decisions than any he’s had before is that it has the mental capacity to take on the responsibility.
And though it is the NBA’s second-youngest team, it would prefer to be thought of as a smart, competitive one. A good one.
“We don’t want any excuses,” Williams said. “I think that accelerates our growth as well, not wanting to be considered young, even though, you know, Ous (Dieng) is like 15. I think that just holds us to a higher standard.”
There are times when the Thunder (6-4) looks its age.
Friday was one of them, a night in Sacramento when its effort ebbed and its attention to detail deteriorated.
But more often, Daigneault said, OKC has shown through its actions that — while it’s a relative bunch of kids — it doesn’t want to be treated with kid gloves.
“The higher the bar, the more you push them, the more you challenge them, they rise to it,” Daigneault said. “And they rise to it with their work. It’s not just them talking. They put the work in and they they compete. Like, they perform, both with how they work behind the scenes and how they perform when they’re challenged.”
The Suns (4-6) challenged them Sunday.
Even without injured guards Devin Booker and Eric Gordon, Phoenix is an experienced team with a pair of stars in Durant and Bradley Beal who have seen and done it all in the NBA.
Durant got 28 points Sunday and Beal 18, and they got support off a bench that outscored OKC’s reserves 38-8. The Suns led by as many as eight points and by six entering the fourth quarter.
And then the offense dried up in the Valley.
The fourth quarter was a Thunder masterpiece, the punctuation on its loudest defensive statement of the season. Its rotations were on point. The Suns’ looks were contested. Durant made 1 of 7 shots in the quarter, Beal 1 of 5.
Beal’s only make of the quarter was a 13-foot floater at the 6:42 mark, and it was Phoenix’s last field goal.
The game had 16 lead changes and 12 ties but none of either after a Gilgeous-Alexander pull-up jumper with 5:21 to play. He was spectacular all night and never more than in the fourth.
But defense carried the night. And at that end, the Thunder played the part of the veteran team.
Holmgren helped at the rim, disrupting shots and forcing hasty decisions. When he rotated out of the paint, Williams said, the Thunder perimeter players rotated in to cover for him.
The Thunder was crushed again on the backboards — Phoenix had a 51-33 rebounding edge — but unlike Friday in Sacramento, OKC compensated for that glaring weakness.
It outscored the Suns 18-5 in points off turnovers and 14-6 in fast break points, playing to its strengths. And though Phoenix had a 16-6 edge in offensive rebounds, its margin in second-chance points (9-3) wasn’t significant.
“We’re making decisions that have tradeoffs that we’re willing to accept,” Daigneault said.
Those tradeoffs can work when OKC is as good in other areas as it was Sunday.
And when it isn’t, Thunder players want to be told so.
They want to be corrected like a team that expects to win.
“Traditionally, for good reason, teams that have experience win,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think that’s where that not-young-team comes from. We want to be treated like a winning team.”
Daigneault’s players aren’t just telling him that. They’re showing him.
More often than not this season, the Thunder has held shootarounds on the morning of games. Not every NBA team does, and the Thunder hasn’t done it often in the past two seasons.
This team requested them, and Daigneault obliged.
On Saturday, players asked for extra time on the clock during a practice at Arizona State, and the coaches gave it to them.
But no message this season has been clearer than the one OKC sent Sunday. This 1-1 road trip put on display what the Thunder can be at its worst and its best.
That they came two days apart might be a sign of youth.
That’s not how Daigneault wants to look at it.
“I think we owe it to this particular group — because they’re ambitious, they’re confident, they’re competitive and they’ve they’ve outplayed their age — I think we owe it to them to not provide that excuse for them,” Daigneault said after that Saturday practice. “We owe it to them to hold them to a high standard that we don’t have to move as they get older and let that standard win the day.”