Thunder takeaways: Defense struggles, comeback comes up short vs. Hawks

Thunder takeaways: Defense struggles, comeback comes up short vs. Hawks

Winning in the NBA is hard. Wednesday was a reminder for the Thunder, which started off flat in Atlanta and recovered too late to avoid a loss to the Hawks.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 4, 2024, 7:25am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 4, 2024, 7:25am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Atlanta Hawks now interrupt all this Thunder revelry for a reminder: Winning in the NBA is hard. 

You’d be forgiven for forgetting, given how things have gone lately for OKC. 

But the Hawks’ 141-138 win Wednesday at State Farm Center in Atlanta provided a refresher. 

The schedule is hard. The travel is hard. The games — even against a sub-.500 underachiever like Atlanta — are hard. 

It’s just that the Thunder (23-10) hadn’t been making it look that way. 

Wednesday’s loss was its second this season against a team from the Eastern Conference (it’s 9-2 in those games now) and its second against a team with a losing record (it’s 12-2). 

And even on the second night of a back-to-back; after holding off hard-charging Boston on Tuesday at Paycom Center; after sitting on a tarmac for two-plus hours in a plane with mechanical trouble and arriving in Atlanta after 4 a.m.;  even after never leading and trailing by as many as 21 points, the Thunder gave itself a chance. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 10 of his 33 points and Jalen Williams 12 of his 21 in the fourth quarter, and the Thunder had a shot in the air to tie at the buzzer. 

“I’ll ride with these guys any night,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault told reporters in Atlanta. “ It wasn’t our fastball tonight. But I have great respect for who we have as competitors. The 82-game season and tough parts of the schedule make it hard to really throw your best pitch every single night. But to continue to fight the way we did is impressive, but it’s also who these guys have proven to be over a long period of time.”

Three takeaways from OKC’s second loss in 11 games: 

Thunder got a look

The Thunder didn’t have its typical level of energy, and the schedule probably played a part in that. But for all its struggles — it fell behind 11-0 to start the game, it trailed by as many as 21 points — it had a shot to tie. 

And it was a heck of a shot. 

Down three with 3.2 seconds to play, OKC called a timeout and Daigneault drew up a beautiful inbounds play to set up Isaiah Joe with a corner 3-pointer to tie. 

The Thunder’s Josh Giddey — an expert at the sideline out-of-bounds pass — threw one to a diving Jalen Williams, who duped the Hawks by getting deep in the paint before firing a pass to Joe in the left corner. 

Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray lost Joe, and by the time Murray recovered to contest, Joe  — who’s making 44.1% of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season — had a good look. 

It missed, but it’s a shot the Thunder could live with. And apparently one Daigneault pulled out on the fly. 

“Every now and then we practice end-of-quarter plays, but he draws them up on the spot,” OKC forward Aaron Wiggins told reporters. “He’s got some stuff up his sleeve, so he was able to just draw it up. Guys liked it coming out of the timeout, and we got a good look.”

The OKC defense rests

The Hawks (14-19) have underachieved this season, but the problem rarely has been their offense. 

Tuesday was the ninth time this season Atlanta has scored at least 130 points. Its 14 made 3-pointers marked the 28th straight game in which Atlanta has made 10 or more, the longest current active streak in the NBA. The Hawks’ 119.5 points per 100 possessions ranks tied with Oklahoma City for fifth-best in the league. 

“There’s a reason why they score the way they do every night,” Daigneault said. “It just requires unbelievable energy in order to slow that down. And even if you do that, they can still get on a heater and have a good one. Obviously, we just didn’t have enough tonight.”

That was particularly true in the first and third quarters. 

Atlanta led 39-25 after the first quarter, and though the Thunder mounted a rally in the third, it mostly did so with its scoring. OKC put up 44 third-quarter points but allowed 40. 

It wasn’t until the fourth quarter — when OKC fell behind by 21 — that the Thunder found a way to string together some stops. The Thunder outscored the Hawks 35-25 in the fourth and held Atlanta to 37% shooting, including 2 for 11 from 3-point range. 

Even with that late wakeup call, OKC allowed 50.5% shooting, just the sixth time this season it’s allowed an opponent to make at least half its shots. The Thunder, which leads the league in points off turnovers at 20 per game, scored 13 points off Atlanta’s 11 turnovers. 

“They were kind of scoring at will in the first half,” Wiggins said. “Whatever they wanted. I think second half, we just started to lock in with personnel and rotations and kind of be better on the ball. But they played well. They hit some big shots.”

Foul play 

The Thunder’s tired legs didn’t show anywhere as much as they showed in the foul column. OKC committed 23 of them, and the Hawks’ 33 free-throw attempts were the fourth-most by a Thunder opponent this season. 

Atlanta was 31 of 33 at the line on a night when the Thunder — the NBA’s best free-throw shooting team — was an uncharacteristic 20 of 26. 

Former Norman North and Oklahoma star Trae Young led the Hawks’ parade to the free-throw line, making 10 of 11. 

“He’s a superstar,” Thunder rookie Cason Wallace told reporters. “They get those calls from what I’ve seen so far in the league.”

Daigneault lauded Young’s ability to draw contact — and sell it — and said “most of those were fouls,” suggesting it was more a problem of Thunder defense than officiating, especially early. The Hawks took 23 of their 33 free throws in the first half. 

“We could have been a lot tighter I thought we got it a little bit under control in the second half, but obviously, we dug ourselves a huge hole 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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