OKLAHOMA CITY — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t need to close the third quarter to finish off the Jazz.
The Thunder star went to the bench with a little less than 90 seconds to play in the third Monday. His work was done. He’d logged 30 points in 28 minutes, had helped OKC build a lead as long as 38 points against Utah.
The final fourth of the Thunder’s 134-120 win was sloppy. It didn’t matter much.
Oklahoma City (15-7) had built an insurmountable lead and buried an overmatched opponent.
It’s gotten pretty good at that.
With the win Monday, the Thunder improved to 10-1 this season against teams with sub-.500 records. Utah is 7-16.
“We don’t play the record,” Gilgeous-Alexander said afterward. “It’s 29 teams in this NBA that are really good and can beat anybody on any night. That’s how we approach it.”
It’s one thing to say that. No team wants to admit it overlooks opponents.
But it happens. It’s happened around here.
The 2017-18 Thunder — led by Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony — went 22-11 against teams with losing records. A season later, the Westbrook-George combo led a team that won 49 games but was 23-17 against sub-.500 teams.
Those teams could find a higher gear against the best teams in the NBA, but too often stumbled in games against also-rans. And that matters when playoff seeding is on the line.
Part of the formula for building a winner in the NBA is beat up on the teams you’re supposed to beat and give yourself a chance against the ones you’re not.
So far, the Thunder has done that.
“I think the most important thing is just trying to play our best every night,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “And if you play your best against a team that you’re better than, then you’ll win. If you play your best against a team that you’re as good as, then you give yourself a great chance. And if you play your best against a team that’s better than you, you give yourself every opportunity. If we’re striving to be our best every night, that’s how we improve.”
The Thunder might not have been quite at its best Monday. The Jazz are struggling and were shorthanded, playing without injured leading scorer Lauri Markkanen.
And though OKC outscored Utah by a combined 36 points in the third quarters, Daigneault said his team “could have been a little tighter at times tonight in the second quarter, at times even in the third.”
Still, it took care of business.
Gilgeous-Alexander was a big reason why, playing the kind of efficient game that has become the norm for him, scoring 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting and adding seven assists and three steals.
In the third quarter alone, he had 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting.
And he had plenty of help. All five Oklahoma City starters — including Cason Wallace, who filled in for the injured Lu Dort — scored in double figures.
Chet Holmgren had 16 points and snapped out of a 2-for-17 shooting funk from 3-point range, making 2 of 3 attempts.
“I had a stretch where I was like 0 for 12 or something. Might have been more than that,” Holmgren said. “But I hit one in the Warriors game (last Friday). So I’m hot now.”
Jalen Williams pitched in 15 points. Struggling Josh Giddey was solid, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Even backup forward Ousmane Dieng got in on the act, scoring 18 points in his first run with the Thunder since Nov. 28. He’s been logging most of his minutes for the Oklahoma City Blue, and Daigneault said his showing Monday “validates the time he spent in the G League.”
Those big numbers were a byproduct of the way OKC approached the game, the way it tries to treat all of them. A 34-20 first quarter against Utah was reminiscent of the Thunder’s win last month in Portland, where it built a double-digit first-quarter lead en route to obliterating the Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back.
“They’re a really hard-playing team,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said before the game of the Thunder. “For a team that gets talked about a lot as having all of this youth, they seem to have a maturity about their approach. It’s pretty cool to watch how hard they play every single night, outside of their talent.”
It’s helped OKC steamroll some inferior competition this season.
But the flip side of that success is that half the teams the Thunder has played this season have losing records.
Oklahoma City is 5-7 this season against teams .500 or better. It’s 2-4 against teams currently in the top six of the Eastern and Western conferences.
There will be stiffer challenges ahead.
But in theory, the approach that’s served the Thunder against losing teams will work against some of the winners, too.
“I’d say it’s less of taking those games (against losing teams) seriously and (more) taking every game serious…,” Holmgren said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. At the end of the day we’re fighting with ourselves to try and be the best Thunder team that we can be.”