‘Mature’ Thunder makes quick work of Blazers after short turnaround

‘Mature’ Thunder makes quick work of Blazers after short turnaround

How did a young team like the Thunder avoid the potential pitfall of a game in Portland on Sunday? It planned ahead. “I feel like with our team, age is a non-factor,” guard Isaiah Joe said.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 20, 2023, 6:37am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 20, 2023, 6:37am CST

PORTLAND, Oregon — There was a moment Sunday, after his Thunder had powered past the Portland Trail Blazers 134-91, when Mark Daigneault paused to thank team security.

Of all things.

The Thunder had spent the better part of a week in San Francisco, where the Asia-Pacific Economic Parters conference had taken over the city, and that brought the heightened security — and added protests — that come with a convergence of world leaders.

The OKC coach lauded his team’s security and operations staffers for navigating “all that was going on” in San Francisco, allowing the guys on the court to hone in on two wins against the Warriors.

“It was all invisible work, but it allowed us to move around San Francisco at a hectic time, from point A to point B,” Daigneault said. “And there’s a lot of invisible people that do a lot of great work for us that allow us to focus on our jobs.”

If you’re wondering why in the world we’re starting there after the Thunder’s hot-shooting, slobber-knocking pummeling of Portland on Sunday night, it’s because that small moment speaks to something more significant.

The Thunder is 10-4, percentage points behind the Minnesota Timberwolves at the top of the Western Conference.

And it’s off to this hot start not just because of the excellence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, whose 28 points against the Blazers looked next to effortless.

Nor solely thanks to the emergence of rookie Chet Holmgren, who on Sunday seemed to carry over the confidence from a career-best night Saturday, scoring 16 points in 20 minutes against Portland.

It’s not just the sizzling offense that made 22 of 36 3-pointers at the Moda Center, that ranks seventh in the NBA at 116.9 points per 100 possessions. It is more than just the stingy defense that held the Blazers to 40% shooting and is allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league.

You can’t miss those numbers.

But just like that security staff, there’s some stuff you don’t see.

You watched the Thunder rally past the Warriors on Saturday behind brilliant Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren showings, then saw them show up Sunday and show resolve.

You missed the part where they talked about doing it, where they stressed not to rest on a pair of wins at Golden State.

“It’s just the way we prepare and just our locker room, really,” forward Lu Dort said Sunday. “The way we talk and we just get ourselves mentally ready for those types of games, even though it’s not easy to play a game last night, travel, get in late and play another game tonight.”

It’s the kind of schedule that can trip up a young up-and-comer, even against a rebuilding team like Portland. It’s a classic trap game, the last on a three-game road trip before a two-day break.

And the Thunder steered clear of it. With intentionality.

Daigneault and his players talk about a daily reset, a mental approach that each day starts with no wins, no losses and a job to do.

It’s one thing to say that in a press conference and another to hold each other accountable for it in private.

So far, the Thunder is doing the latter.

It certainly did on Sunday.

OKC led the Blazers by as many as 15 points in the first quarter, making 12 of 17 shots and 4 of 6 3-pointers. It was a sign of things to come. The Thunder finished the night making 49 of 81 shots, 22 of 36 3-pointers and 14 of 14 free throws.

Portland (3-10) never led by more than two points and trailed by as many as 47.

Coming off an exhausting Saturday night — and playing without starter Jalen Williams, who strained his left hip against the Warriors and sat out Sunday — Daigneault went deep into his rotation, playing all 15 available players.

Eleven of them got on the court in the first quarter. And they didn’t just participate; they pitched in.

Fourteen Thunder players scored. Eleven made at least one 3-pointer, and six of them made at least two. Isaiah Joe went 5 for 6 from long distance, capping a three-game road trip in which he made 14 of 17 3s.

And OKC’s swarming defense held Portland to 9 of 34 long-range shooting; it forced 17 turnovers and turned them into 29 points.

The Thunder never gave the Blazers a chance.

“I think ‘mature’ is a great word,” Daigneault said. “I thought we showed great maturity, great discipline to the 0-0 mindset. I thought our execution of the game plan early really set the tone for the game and got us a nice grip on the game early. And you know, that was a byproduct of maturity, discipline.

That’s what a good team is supposed to do.

It’s not what a young team always does.

The Thunder is the league’s second-youngest team. A couple of rookies in the rotation; a starting lineup with an average age under 23. You can look at the roster and see the numbers.

But as is often the case, there’s stuff you don’t see.

“I feel like with our team, age is a non-factor,” Joe said. “You wouldn’t even be able to tell that we’re a young team by the way we handle certain situations. I think in games like today, off of a rough back-to-back, it just shows that the guys here, it’s not just age. They show maturity.”

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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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