OKC’s rout of Memphis showcased Chet Holmgren’s still-improving defense

OKC’s rout of Memphis showcased Chet Holmgren’s still-improving defense

Chet Holmgren blocked seven shots and the Thunder held the Grizzlies to just 11 two-point baskets in a 116-97 Oklahoma City win.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 19, 2023, 6:20am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 19, 2023, 6:20am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mark Daigneault called them “loud,” and it’s an apt description of how Chet Holmgren’s blocks shots. 

You can’t miss it when the Thunder center rises up and swats away a would-be attempt. Eyebrows raise. Jaws drop. 

Holmgren blocked seven of them in a 116-97 win against the Grizzlies on Monday at Paycom Center, and on a few, he turned the volume up to 11. 

There was the play in the first quarter where Holmgren contested what looked like a floater from the Grizzlies’ Desmond Bane, who instead dished to a Xavier Tillman in the dunker’s spot. 

Holmgren recovered and stuffed Tillman’s shot instead. 

There was the third-quarter drive by Memphis’ Vince Williams Jr. where Holmgren appeared as if from out of nowhere — racing in on the weak side — to spike a layup off the glass. 

“It feels like Chet blocks everything,” teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Feels like he always has.”

It certainly feels that way lately. 

Holmgren’s seven-block performance against the Grizzlies — part of a stifling Thunder team effort inside the 3-point line — came on the heels of an eight-block night in last Saturday’s win at Denver. 

He’s blocked 33 shots in his past seven games, a rate of 4.7 per game. 

If a shot-blocker can get in the zone — the way a red-hot shooter does — then Holmgren’s in one. 

But there’s no such thing. At least not in his expert opinion. 

“I’d say mostly being in the right place at the right time mostly comes down to just playing hard,” he said. “And you know, when I’m playing my hardest, I guess it kind of naturally happens. So I got to be able to do that as much as I possibly can.”

But even as he’s piling up highlight-reel blocks — like his volleyball spike of a Jaren Jackson Jr. attempt Monday — Holmgren also has some stuff simmering under the surface. 

For all the blocks his coach called “loud,” there are quiet plays, too. There’s defensive nuance, ins and outs Holmgren didn’t pick up early in the season that he’s starting to nail down now. 

Holmgren is learning at what depth to play in pick-and-roll coverage to help defend a ballhandler or quickly recover to contest a shot at the rim. He’s mastering angles. 

Early in the season, Daigneault said, Holmgren “was really opened in his stance,” allowing straight line drives to the basket or putting himself in a difficult position to recover to a screener who rolled to the rim or popped out for a jump shot.

And for all he’s done, the Thunder (17-8) is asking Holmgren for more.  

“We’re moving them around the floor a little more,” Daigneault said. “We’re having him take different matchups for different reasons on different nights. That’s a layer that he’s certainly capable of that we didn’t do early because we were really trying to get him dialed into the pick-and-roll part.”

Lately, he’s looked locked in all over the floor. 

For good measure Monday, Holmgren had the offense working. He scored 17 points to complement Gilgeous-Alexander’s 30 on a good-but-not-great offensive night that was enough to overwhelm the shorthanded Grizzlies (6-19). 

Mostly, though, the story was Holgmren’s defense — and the smothering Thunder D it keyed. 

The Grizzlies finished the game 19 of 54 from 3-point range and 11 of 31 from inside the arc. According to StatHead, it’s the 10th time in NBA history that a team has made 11 or fewer two-point shots in a game. Four of those times came between 1950 and 1953, before the 3-point shot or the shot clock. 

“Generally we’re OK with giving up a volume of threes as long as they’re contested, because it means that we’re forcing teams to Plan B,” Daigneault said. “Everybody wants to attack the rim. Everybody wants to go the (free-throw) line. Everybody wants to shoot layups. And if we’re forcing teams to shoot jump shots, that’s a good thing. We need to be great at then contesting them.”

Mostly, the Thunder has been. It leads the league in contested shots per game. 

Against the Grizzlies, OKC didn’t contest at its best on the perimeter — “We could have gotten burned more if they shot it better,” Daigneault said — but it sealed off the lane. 

The Thunder scored 58 points in the paint, the Grizzlies 22. Memphis shot 39.3% (11 of 28) in the lane. 

Holmgren was a big part of that — and not just as a shot blocker. 

His length forces bad decisions around the rim. His presence in pick-and-roll defense disrupts an opponent’s offensive flow. His timing and reach help him pick off passes, like the crosscourt dish the Grizzlies’ Jacob Gilyard pitched — and Homgren picked — in the third quarter. 

It’s all part of Holmgren’s continuing defensive education. 

He arrived in the NBA as a multi-skilled defender and high-level rim protector. He studied the game last season as he sat with a foot injury. But his game is expanding rapidly with reps. 

“A lot of it’s personnel-wise, just understanding what certain guys are trying to do and taking that away by playing them differently,” Holmgren said. “So no two coverages are going to be the same with different players in (a pick-and-roll). So just understanding that, watching film and getting a good read on guys and trying to take away what they want to do most.”

He and the Thunder took away most everything from a Memphis team that’s struggled to find offense without suspended point guard Ja Morant, eligible to return from a 25-game suspension for the Grizzlies’ game Tuesday in New Orleans. 

There will be more challenging defensive assignments ahead, including Thursday when the sizzling Clippers — winners of eight straight entering their Tuesday game at Dallas — come to town. 

But so far, Holmgren is passing most every test. 

He’s steadily improved week over week. He’s taken lessons from setbacks and applied them to second meetings with opponents. 

Holmgren is making defensive plays of all kinds; the big, boisterous ones and the smaller, subtle sort. 

And he still has room for more. 

“He’s got a long way to go in terms of becoming the best player that he can become,” Daigneault said. “Obviously he’s already impactful though.” 

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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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