The Thunder can win with style; against Chicago it got by with grit

The Thunder can win with style; against Chicago it got by with grit

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took charge. The Thunder took charges. On a night the offense often bogged down, an OKC team that has proven it can win pretty had to go gritty to beat the Bulls.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 23, 2023, 6:42am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 23, 2023, 6:42am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — You know the Thunder can win with style. 

It entered Wednesday’s game against the Chicago Bulls as the NBA’s leader in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage and coming off a weekend back-to-back in which it made more than 55% of its shots and better than half its 3-pointers. 

It’s not been an issue for OKC to win pretty. 

Against Chicago, it had to get gritty. 

The Thunder’s 116-102 win over the Bulls might look in the boxscore like a comfortable win on a strong offensive night. In truth, it was neither, a game that was often a slog and went undecided until the final minutes. 

So yes, the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got 40 points. But he needed to shoot 17 of 18 from the free-throw line to get there. 

And sure, OKC hit nearly half its shots (49.3%). But it did so despite starters Chet Holmgren, Lu Dort and Josh Giddey shooting a combined 10 for 30. 

“Every night’s different,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Some nights you make more shots than others. Some nights you have to grind it out. The best teams and the best teams ever have found a way to win throughout every circumstance. And the more we can train that muscle the better for us in the long run.”

OKC (11-4) has proven adept at winning when the offense runs smoothly. It entered Wednesday scoring 120.4 points per 100 possessions in wins and 108.1 in losses. 

But after falling behind by 18 points in the first half, Chicago managed to muck up the Thunder offense for long stretches of Wednesday. 

And in portions of the game when OKC couldn’t light up the scoreboard, it turned back the clock. 

The Thunder took four second-half charges, a staple of last season’s defense — a league-leading 1.5 per game — that has been a side dish this fall (0.5 per game). 

That’s in part, coach Mark Daigneault said, because charge-taking experts Jaylin Williams (who took two on Wednesday) and Kenrich Williams (one) missed time due to injury. 

But OKC took all four in the second half against the Bulls, a reminder that even with Holmgren swatting away shots above the rim, the Thunder still can play a more ground-bound brand of defense. 

“We want to be a team that is a compete-together team, and we got to put the ‘compete’ in that phrase,” Daigneault said. “And I think we’ve done that. There’s a mental toughness to the team. There’s a collective toughness to the team. There’s a willingness to be physical.”

And there’s a belief that if the Thunder’s stars aren’t shining the way they so often do, someone else can step in and make a winning play. 

That happened against the Bulls.

With Dort slowed by foul trouble — he fouled out with 4:51 to play — rookie Cason Wallace tried to slow Chicago star DeMar DeRozan. He had mixed results (DeRozan was 3 for 4 from the floor in the fourth quarter) but Wallace fought. 

And around him, OKC bothered the Bulls in Dort’s absence. Chicago’s other starters went a combined 4 for 13 from the floor in the fourth quarter, and the Thunder held the Bulls to five points in the game’s final 2:59. 

Though he finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks, Holmgren went 5 for 11 from the floor and struggled to find his shot for much of the night. Giddey (4 for 13) and Dort (1 for 6) never did. 

But reserve guard Isaiah Joe “didn’t get the memo,” Holmgren said, that the Thunder was winning a gritty game when its shots didn’t drop. Joe hit 5 of 7 3-pointers and scored 20 points, including a four-point play with 1:59 to play that put OKC in front by 11. 

There were contributions across the board. 

Kenrich Williams had 13 points and five rebounds. Aaron Wiggins had six points and four rebounds in 11 minutes.

“You’re gonna need everybody for different reasons,” Daigneault said. “You can’t just double down on the same guys every night and if you do, defenses will start to scheme and take that out and they’ll they’ll make the other guys make plays. So we need everybody to be confident. We need everybody to play the right way.”

They did Wednesday — “we just had to knuckle down and find the energy and the will to win,” Joe said — and the Thunder’s bench production put its stars in position to finish. 

With OKC up 98-95, Gilgeous-Alexander hit a cutting Holmgren on the baseline for a layup. On Chicago’s ensuing possession, Holmgren swatted a driving attempt by Patrick Williams, blowing up the Bulls’ possession; it led to a 24-second violation. 

Gilgeous-Alexander drove and finished on the next play to put the Thunder up 102-95, and the Bulls never got closer than five points. 

It wasn’t much to look at. 

But OKC has won plenty pretty. 

If it hopes to make the leap forward its start suggests is possible, the Thunder needs to win some like this. Not works of art so much as lessons in survival. 

“Not every night every shot’s gonna go in,” Holmgren said. “So you have to figure out how to win no matter what circumstances you’re playing with. Tonight we didn’t shoot as hot from the floor but we did a good job of figuring out other ways to make plays and win.”

 

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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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