OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder will look back at its 128-123 loss to the Kings on Thursday in Sacramento and see some opportunities that got away late.
But it’ll lament some mistakes made long before that.
Trailing by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter, OKC rallied to within two with three minutes to play, then missed four straight shots, fell behind by six and never got closer than three the rest of the way.
On a night when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a season-high-tying 43 points but the Thunder struggled for long stretches, Sacramento sizzled. The Kings got more made three-pointers from the trio of De’Aaron Fox (five), Keon Ellis (five) and Malik Monk (four) than OKC made in the game (11).
“They made a lot of tough shots,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault told reporters after the game. “But that’s why the easy stuff and the controllable stuff is so critical, because we still were able to make it a one-possession game down the stretch, even with all that on a bad shooting night for us. But in the game flow, we’re going to look back and see some plays that were controllable, and if you can just shave some of those down, it could be the difference in a game. I thought that was the case tonight.”
Key takeaways about that “controllable stuff” and more:
Many of the controllable variables Daigneault was talking about were defensive issues.
The OKC offense — despite poor shooting — was pretty solid (more on that later).
And the Kings create some matchup problems for the Thunder, not only with the shooters they can use to space the floor but with an experienced, physical center in Domantas Sabonis, who has proven in two games to be a handful for rookie Chet Holmgren.
Sabonis had 18 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists. Fox was virtually unstoppable, with 41 points and seven assists.
But Daigneault saw spots where the Thunder could have made those big numbers — and the Kings’ 18 3-pointers — harder to come by.
There were some easy opportunities, some defensive rotations that lacked urgency, Daigneault said. Some of the Thunder’s closeouts to shooters came up short. There were some transition defense gaffes.
“There’s probably 15 or 20 points that we could have made them earn more,” Daigneualt said. “They probably would have still gotten some of them, but if you can shave some of those down, even on a poor shooting night you can find a way to maybe get that game, and I didn’t think we gave ourselves that much chance.”
SGA: Shai’s Game Advancing
For as much as the Thunder struggled to make shots — particularly in the first half — and for all the defensive looks the Kings threw at Gilgeous-Alexander, he found ways to make plays for himself and his teammates.
His 43-point night got a boost at the free-throw line, where he made 16 of a season-high-tying 18 attempts. He added nine assists on a night when OKC left some points on the floor, shooting 43.1% from the floor and making 11 of 36 3-pointers (30.6%).
Gilgeous-Alexander did all that against a Kings defense that threw consistent double-teams at him.
He found ways to pick those apart, Daigneault said, a skill Gilgeous-Alexander has been working to improve.
Sometimes “he hit the gas before they could set a double on him,” Daigneault said, attacking to score. At other times, he gave up the ball quickly and “let us play four on three.”
The Thunder had good spacing and found good shots in those scenarios, Daigneault said. It just missed a bunch of them — especially in the first half, when OKC shot 34% from the floor.
The Thunder’s starters outside of Gilgeous-Alexander shot a combined 3 for 17 before halftime. Starting wing Jalen Williams finished the game 2 for 14 from the floor.
But even when the Thunder went cold in crunch time, Daigneault said, it was getting the looks it wanted — in large part because of what the defense on Gilgeous-Alexander opened up for his teammates.
“If we want to be a good team, we have to have the maturity to look at that and say, ‘Man, we really executed,’” Daigneault said. “We need to execute like that every night to give ourselves the best chance and have the confidence in ourselves and each other that we’re going to make enough of those (shots) if we execute like that.”
Giddey makes strides
Among the Thunder starters with quiet first halves: Josh Giddey, who had two points on 1-for-3 shooting and three turnovers before halftime.
The slumping third-year guard — who’s been the subject of off-court scrutiny and the target of boos on the road since the NBA announced it was looking into allegations that he had an improper relationship with a female minor — found a gear in the second half that he’s struggled to hit for much of the season.
Giddey had 16 points in the second half. Entering Thursday night, he’d scored fewer than 16 points in 17 of 22 games. His second-half stat line: 7-for-11 shooting, including 2 of 3 3-pointers; four rebounds; two assists and one turnover.
It was part of a second-half resurgence for some of OKC’s starting five. Lu Dort scored 11 of his 17 points after halftime and Holmgren 12 of his 14.
But none of those numbers was more notable than Giddey’s, given his recent struggles. He’d scored in single digits in two of his past three games and hadn’t scored more than 14 points in a game since Nov. 16.
Against the Kings, Giddey played with “great force,” Daigneault said, and a good balance between aggressively finding his shots and keeping teammates involved.
“He’s obviously struggled to this point, and I thought that the work he’s put in over the last week to 10 days in particular has been really good,” Daigneault said. “And that’s been encouraging, because when you’re struggling you want to work through the struggles. Things just don’t just turn on their own. You’ve got to make them turn.”