Thunder takeaways: How the Rockets stifled OKC’s offense

Thunder takeaways: How the Rockets stifled OKC’s offense

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was more or less himself — 33 points, 13-for-18 shooting — but the Thunder’s other starters shot a combined 10 for 38 from the floor Wednesday night in Houston.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 7, 2023, 7:27am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 7, 2023, 7:27am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The offense was a step slow. The defense was consistently compromised. 

The way Thunder coach Mark Daigneault saw it, the Rockets “outplayed us on both ends of the floor” Wednesday night, and that just about sums up Houston’s 110-101 win at the Toyota Center. 

The Rockets got off to a faster start and had a stronger finish and mostly controlled the time in between. The Thunder (13-7) never led by more than two points, and Houston held the lead from the 9:55 mark of the first quarter until the buzzer sounded at the end of the fourth. 

“I just thought throughout, they were the better team,” Daigneault told reporters in Houston. “They outplayed us tonight. We have to tip our hat to them, learn some lessons from it, go to practice tomorrow, get better and be a better team on Friday.”

Some postgame thoughts on the Thunder’s third loss in 10 road games:

Offense: Ugly

The Rockets (9-9) are 9-1 at home, and they entered the game with the NBA’s second-best defensive rating in home games, allowing 102.1 points per 100 possessions at the Toyota Center. 

So it’s not a big surprise that the Thunder’s offense “had a hard time generating rhythm,” as Daigneault put it. 

But the degree to which OKC struggled was a little shocking. 

The Rockets made seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. The Thunder made eight the entire game, in 29 attempts. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was more or less himself — 33 points, 13-for-18 shooting — but the Thunder’s other starters shot a combined 10 for 38 from the floor. 

Jalen Williams was 5 for 13, but Lu Dort went 0 for 5, Josh Giddey 3 for 11 and Chet Holmgren — in the least offensively impactful game so far in his rookie season — made 2 of 9 shots. 

Holmgren missed all four of his 3-point attempts and has missed 12 of his past 13 from long range throughout three games. 

Holmgren got fine looks against the Rockets — Houston center Alperen Sengun is an offensive stat-sheet stuffer but not a perimeter defensive specialist — and couldn’t connect. 

Holmgren’s in a slump. It happens. 

But his bad shooting was in good company Wednesday. In contrast to last Saturday’s win in Dallas, when the Mavericks blitzed Gilgeous-Alexander and were hit with a barrage of 3-point shots from his supporting cast, OKC laid bricks most of the night against Houston. 

Defense: Not much better 

The Rockets have the NBA’s 20th-rated offense, and it’s middling even at the Toyota Center, ranking 17th in the league in home games only. 

But while Houston is a middle-of-the-league team in 3-point makes (12.5 per game, 15th in the NBA) and percentage (36.4%, 14th), it got a spark behind the ark against the Thunder. 

That came from Aaron Holiday, who came into the game scoring 6.4 points and making less than one 3-pointer per game. 

Against OKC he scored 22 and hit 6 of 7 from 3-point range, keying a 15-for-33 night from the Rockets. 

A 45-24 scoring advantage from behind the line is a game-changer — especially against a Thunder team that leads the NBA in 3-point percentage (39.6%) and ranks 11th in makes (13 per game).  

But it wasn’t just the shots Houston made that stood out to Daigneault. It was the kind the Rockets created. 

They created advantages, got OKC “behind the ball,” Daigneault said, and took advantage of the Thunder’s scrambling to find open shooters. 

Holmgren had six blocked shots and Gilgeous-Alexander six steals,  but those gaudy numbers weren’t reflective of a Thunder defensive effort that despite generating 21 turnovers seemed out of sync. 

(Notably, Holmgren played only 2:54 in the fourth quarter, and the Rockets outscored the Thunder by 10 points in that short stint. He checked out with 7:44 to play and OKC trailing by 17 and didn’t return.) 

The Thunder gave up 19 second-chance points on 10 offensive rebounds and — despite those turnovers — scored only nine fast-break points, an indicator that the game was played at the more deliberate pace Houston prefers. 

And still, OKC had a chance. A 3-pointer from reserve guard Tre Mann cut Houston’s lead to 69-68 with 3:30 to play in the third quarter, but the Rockets were back in front by six by the start of a fourth quarter they controlled. 

“We had it in striking distance; it never quite felt like we had control of the game,” Daigneault said. “I thought they were outplaying us and it felt like that but we had a chance. We had a chance to string together a little bit of energy and obviously couldn’t do that tonight. They did a good job of holding us off.”

The bench: Not bad

That third-quarter 3-pointer was one of two Mann hit in the period, part of a 10-point night. It was the most points Mann had scored since a loss to Denver on Oct. 29, and his 24 minutes against the Rockets were a season high. 

That came a day after Mann played for the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate, and scored 26 points in a win against the Birmingham Squadron. 

“He stays ready regardless of maybe he’s with the Blue or with us,” teammate Aaron Wiggins said. “He gets his work in and he kind of approaches it as if he’s going to play 30, 40 minutes every night. So he’s ready whenever his name is called. And he looked good tonight. I was happy he got some minutes.”

Wiggins pitched in 11 points and Kenrich Williams five off the bench 

And backup guard Cason Wallace was on the floor for the 9-0 run that cut Houston’s lead to one in the third, contributing a 3-pointer, a block and two rebounds in that span. 

Up next: Warriors

The Thunder was supposed to be finished with Golden State, but the NBA In-Season Tournament left this week open and created unexpected matchups. 

Each team that didn’t make the IST quarterfinals in Las Vegas had one home game and one road game added to the schedule this week, and the Thunder’s visitor Friday will be a Warriors team it played three times in its first 13 games.

 

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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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