Chet Holmgren’s offense — and audacity — help the Thunder stop sizzling Clippers

Chet Holmgren’s offense — and audacity — help the Thunder stop sizzling Clippers

Chet Holmgren did what? Even beyond the most audacious play of his rookie season, the Thunder made mature decisions to help lift the Thunder to a streak-snapping win against the Clippers.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 22, 2023, 6:26am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 22, 2023, 6:26am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Lu Dort’s done it, but not since high school. 

The Thunder forward remembers tossing a ball off the backboard to himself for a basket back then, but that was “a long time ago,” he admits, and even that didn’t bear much resemblance to what teammate Chet Holmgren did Thursday night. 

Holmgren didn’t just pitch the ball off the glass and go get it, didn’t just dunk it with two hands to whip the Paycom Center crowd into a frenzy. 

He did it in an NBA game. Against the hottest team in the league, no less. And helped spark a spurt that carried the Thunder to a 135-114 rout of the Clippers that ended L.A.’s nine-game winning streak. 

“I mean, in high school I could do whatever I wanted,” Dort said afterward with a laugh. “It’s different. But in this league, doing that? Especially as a rookie, it takes a lot (of confidence). So credit to him.”

There was plenty of credit to go around Thursday. 

The Clippers entered the game without a loss since Nov. 30. During its nine-game winning streak, L.A. had outscored opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions. 

And though the Clips were on the second night of a back-to-back and playing Thursday without star Kawhi Leonard, it still took OKC’s best punch to pull out a win. 

It took 31 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and double-digit scoring from five other OKC players. It took a 16-of-34 shooting performance from 3-point range and a defensive effort that contributed to a 7-for-18 night from Clippers star James Harden. 

It took fighting through some adversity. 

Josh Giddey — who scored 11 points in the first quarter — went down with a left ankle sprain in the second quarter and didn’t return. Jalen Williams left the game with an apparent injury early in the third but came back to finish off a 13-point night. The Clippers, who never led in the first half, went ahead by a point early in the third quarter. 

And it took another potent performance from Holmgren, whose rapidly expanding game seems to display some new delight almost every night. 

On Thursday it was his playmaking (seven assists) to go along with his scoring (23 points). 

And it was that pass off the backboard. To himself. 

It’s hard to stress that enough. 

_

Holmgren had the ball in his hands with a little less than nine minutes to play and his team down one, and the fun started with a dribble drive and a shot fake against Clippers center Ivica Zubac. 

Zubac bit on it — “If I pump fake and Zubac doesn’t jump, it never happens in the first place,” Holmgren said — leaving Holmgren an opportunity to take a step toward the rim. 

“I didn’t expect him to do it,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Thought he was just gonna step through and shoot.”

Instead, Holmgren scooped the ball into a lob that hit just above the square, then caught the ball and dunked, putting the Thunder in front 74-73 with 8:43 to play in the third. 

“We don’t work on that,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “That’s not a part of his player development plan. He was just rocking.” 

In the aftermath, the building was rocking too. 

And suddenly the Thunder was rolling. 

The dunk was the icebreaker on a 13-0 run. The Clippers never got back up after Holmgren threw down. 

It didn’t decide the game; it might not have been Holmgren’s most impactful play of the night. 

But in much the way Daigneault noted that “loud” blocked shots can drown out Holmgren’s overall defensive growth, the self-assisted dunk was the kind of distracting detonation that masks Holmgren’s offensive slow burn. 

The game is slowing down for him at that end. He’s making reads he didn’t earlier this season. His seven assists against the Clippers were in part the product of the lengthy list of defensive looks L.A. gave OKC. 

The Thunder adjusted to each of them — the zone, the traps of Gilgeous-Alexander, the one-through-five switching — sometimes by giving Holmgren opportunities to make plays. 

He read the floor from the high post. The Thunder gave him the ball in the zone and let him make decisions against it. He found jump shooters. He ran the break and left the ball for a trailing Williams to attack. 

Late in the fourth quarter, Holmgren drove and rose up as if for a short jumper, only to hit a cutting Dort for a dunk. 

“I thought he just had a good balance of his own aggression, finding his own shot, getting his teammates activated, even when he drew the help,” Daigneault said. “I thought his floor game might have been as good as it’s been all season. He took advantage of his opportunities and really was good for us.”

It helped key a killer offensive night for OKC. 

Gilgeous-Alexander led the way, but Dort pitched in 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 4 of 5 in the paint. Williams had 13 points and matched Holmgren with seven assists. The Thunder had 35 of them in the game to tie a season-high. 

And Holmgren wasn’t just a play starter. He did his share of finishing, hitting 9 of 11 shots and 2 of 3 3-pointers en route to his 23 points. 

“He’s a talent, man. He’s a talent,” Clippers forward Paul George said. “We didn’t quite figure it out, because he’s not necessarily a ‘big.’ He can play and move like a guard and wing so he gave us some problems. His ability to shoot, play off the bounce and his length. I thought that… kind of threw us off guard a little bit.”

Also, he dunked a ball that he passed to himself. 

On a night when the Thunder beat the hottest team in the NBA, that’ll be the takeaway. It’s a long season. Winning streaks end and fade away. 

But the dunk that came out of nowhere isn’t going anywhere. 

“I don’t know where it came from, really honestly,” Holmgren said. “That was like a at-the-park move. Just growing up, hoopin’ at the courts or wherever I was. It just happened. It’s not like I was like, I’m gonna do this.’ But I saw it, play was there and I made it happen.”

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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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