Undersized Thunder comes up big against towering Timberwolves

Undersized Thunder comes up big against towering Timberwolves

The towering Timberwolves were no match — and no matchup — for the sharp-shooting, small-ball Thunder on Tuesday. How OKC’s undersized approach paid off against the West-leading Wolves.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 27, 2023, 6:28am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 27, 2023, 6:28am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kenrich Williams planted his feet and braced for an impact Karl-Anthony Towns seemed almost eager to deliver. 

Towns, Minnesota’s center-sized power forward, lowered a shoulder into Williams, the Thunder’s undersized reserve center, who hit the deck and drew a charge. The play took a split second, and it didn’t take much longer for Towns to be hit with a technical foul in his frustration. 

Maybe it’s giving the Thunder too much credit to say that sort of play was part of the plan Tuesday in its 129-106 rout of the West-leading Minnesota. 

But it’s clear OKC wasn’t afraid of the big, bad Wolves, that small ball was drawn into the orange-and-blueprint against Minnesota, which starts the 7-foot Towns alongside 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert.

You could see the Thunder’s intent in the way the ball whipped around in the OKC offense, a contributor to a season-high-tying 35 assists; in the way it scrapped for loose-ball rebounds, losing the rebounding battle but only by a 35-29 margin. 

“With a team that big, you have to play fast,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “You have to move the ball. You have to make them work. There’s upsides and downsides (to playing small), but we used the upsides to our advantage for sure tonight.”

Nobody did it better than Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 34 points, six rebounds and nine assists. He made OKC’s small-ball attack go and made it work for him. 

Gobert is a massive advantage when he’s protecting the rim. It’s minimized when Gilgeous-Alexander can get him isolated one-on-one on the perimeter, forcing a switch and making the big man move his feet.  

It wasn’t the only way OKC used size to its advantage. 

Coach Mark Daigneault played the 6-foot-6 Williams for 16 minutes at center. He used 6-9 Jaylin Williams for fewer than five minutes after the game was decided. 

Daigneault deployed point guard Vasilije Micic for 16 minutes off the bench; Micic had played in two games since Nov. 22 and has logged more than 16 minutes twice all season. 


Forwards Ousmane Dieng (6-foot-9) and Davis Bertans (6-10) didn’t see the court. 

It’s the kind of rotation that left OKC vulnerable to being battered on the backboards. But OKC’s starting lineup — with slender 7-1 center Chet Holmgren and four wing players ranging from 6-4 to 6-8 — does that already. 

And when the Thunder plays the way it did Tuesday, it’ll take the tradeoff.  

The game — and the small-ball decision — don’t boil down to the backboards. 

“It’s very interconnected,” Daigneault said. “There’s a lot of different facets to it. And we just want to be a team where, when you bake all that in, the benefit outweighs the cost.”

On Tuesday, the Thunder (19-9) stayed small and it cost the Wolves big. 

As it often does —  including in a 106-103 loss on Nov. 28 at Minnesota — the Thunder went extensively with 6-6 wing Jalen Williams as the primary defender on Towns, a task Williams said he can take on because he has “a lot of help behind me, so it allows me to kind of crawl into the ball and make it uncomfortable.”

Towns had 16 points Tuesday on 10 shots. 

And the variety of wings OKC puts on the floor can create challenges for perimeter players, too. Lu Dort was the primary defender on Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, but it was a swarming defense that made Edwards work for his 25 points, shooting 7 for 16 from the floor. 

Daigneault said his team’s “intensity” and “activity defensively” is what allowed it to stay small. The Thunder dictated the pace, he said. It scored 23 points off 24 Minnesota turnovers, had an 11-3 edge in fast-break points and minimized the damage on the offensive glass. The Wolves had eight second-chance points on eight offensive rebounds. 

That was a significant shift from the 19 points the Wolves (22-7) had in their home win over the Thunder last month. 

OKC is not a good rebounding team. It remains 29th in the 30-team NBA in defensive rebounding percentage, pulling in 67.2% of opponent misses. But that number was 65.4% in November. It’s 68% in December. 

Daigneault noted that Kenrich Williams, whom he called “a very impactful small-ball” center, missed the team’s first 10 games, during which OKC grabbed 66% of the opponent’s misses. 

Even with Kenrich Williams, Daigneault conceded, “we haven’t arrived by any stretch of the imagination” as rebounders. Jalen Williams said the Thunder has put “made more of an emphasis on” rebounding but was quick to add, “I don’t know if we got better at it yet.” 

“We’ve improved in some areas, and I thought we showed that tonight, just contrasting this game to the game in Minnesota,” Daigneault said. “But we also shot it really well tonight and played in a really good groove. So there was some of that going on too.”

“Really well” is underselling it. 

All five OKC starters scored in double figures. Jalen Williams had 21, Holmgren and Lu Dort 20 each. 

The Thunder shot 60.5% to tie a season high, and though some of that was a product of creating mismatches with small-ball lineups, some of it — including the 18 of 39 3-point shooting — is a high-variance outcome that fell in OKC’s favor. 

But OKC benefited from small ball last season, and Daigneault wants to find some version of it for this team, even beyond a starting five that outside of Holmgren averages out a little shorter than 6-foot-6. 

“If the benefits outweigh the costs, then we do it,” Daigneault said. “And we’ll go big. We’ve gone big with Jaylin Williams and Chet together too. So it’s not like a badge of honor to do something different. We’re just trying to find the best thing. And we thought that was best tonight.”

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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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