Boards, not boredom, are key to Thunder’s 124-115 loss at Brooklyn

Boards, not boredom, are key to Thunder’s 124-115 loss at Brooklyn

After a string of high-profile wins, the Thunder has lost back-to-back games against sub-.500 teams on the road. Mark Daigneault is convinced it’s not a post-success hangover.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 5, 2024, 11:22pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 5, 2024, 11:22pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — There’s an easy narrative here, and it goes a little something like this. 

The young, fun Thunder get off to a rip-roaring start, beat some of the best teams in the NBA, then have a little trouble mustering enthusiasm for the middling Hawks and Nets and drop two straight to open a road trip. 

It didn’t seem an outlandish theory after the Nets’ 124-115 win Friday night in Brooklyn. But Mark Daigneault is not a subscriber. 

“I hope not,” he told reporters at Barclays Center on Friday. “I think we’ve got a team that has a pretty uncommon maturity. So with anything like that, they always get the benefit of the doubt from me.”

His team prepares, Daigneault says. It has a professional approach. It attacks what’s in front of it. 

And sometimes it still lays an egg like it did in the first half against the Nets. 

OKC trailed 75-47 at halftime Friday. It hit 2 of 15 first-half 3-pointers — Brooklyn made 10 of 21 — and committed eight turnovers in the first two quarters. 

It was bad. 

The second half got briefly worse — the Nets stretched their lead to 32 points early in the third quarter — before it got better. The Thunder (23-11) ended up outscoring Brooklyn 68-49 after halftime. It still wasn’t enough. 

Though OKC got as close as six in the final minute, it had fallen too far behind to close out a comeback. Daigneault said afterward “Obviously the lesson tonight is you can’t dig a hole like that and expect to come back and win the game.”

The Nets (16-20) were “the aggressor,” Daigneault said, and “did a great job of attacking the game and setting the tone for the game.” The Hawks did the same Wednesday in Atlanta, jumping out to an 11-0 start and leading by as many as 21 points in the first half. 

But Daigneault shook off the suggestion that maybe a string of December wins against the NBA elite — the reigning NBA champion Nuggets twice; the red-hot Clippers; the West-leading Timberwolves; and on Tuesday, NBA-leading Boston —  had left his team too flat to flatten the sub-.500 Hawks and Nets. 

“They do all the things that you need to do to get yourself ready that would be predictive of readiness and predictive of urgency and they’re consistent with that all the time,” Daigneault said. “But at the end of the day, there’s 82 of these things. We’d love to play perfect all 82 of them, but no one does. So we have to learn from it.”

Takeaways from OKC’s second-straight loss:

Pain in the glass

For all that the Thunder did wrong on Friday, it probably wins if it does one more thing right. 

Defensive rebounding, a season-long issue that hurts more in some games than others, was particularly painful against Brooklyn. 

The Nets had 20 offensive rebounds and outscored the Thunder 30-7 in second-chance points. Seventeen of those 30 second-chance points came in the first half. 

“A lot of it in the first half was just effort and physicality,” Daigneault said. “I thought they were hungry for that game. And they played like it. That happens sometimes to start a game, and it takes you a second to get going and get yourself into the game. It just took us way too long to pace with them.”

But six of Brooklyn’s second-chance points came in a fourth quarter the Thunder won 36-23. A few extra rebounds late could have been difference-makers. 

The Thunder has found ways to win this season even when it’s blasted on the backboards, but often that’s because it does things that offset an opponent’s advantage on the glass. 

OKC forces turnovers. It gets out in transition. 

It couldn’t do either in the first half against the Nets, which contributed to Brooklyn’s early lead. 

The Thunder scored 20 points off Nets turnovers Friday, but 13 of those came in the second half after the deficit was nearly insurmountable. And Brooklyn outscored OKC on the fast break 11-4 in the first half before those points evened out at 13-13 for the game. 

Free-throw woes

The Thunder entered Friday as the NBA’s best free-throw shooting team at 84.7%. 

It ended the night still as the league’s top team by percentage. But it took a hit. 

OKC went 16 of 24 at the foul line against the Nets to drop to 84.1% this season. Its 66.7% free-throw shooting against Brooklyn was its worst this season by nearly 10 percentage points. 

And it continued a trend. 

The Thunder’s previous worst performance at the line this season was 76.5% in Tuesday’s win against Boston. That fell to No. 2 on Friday. The third-worst? Wednesday’s loss at Atlanta. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the biggest culprit. 

Entering the Boston game, the OKC star — who had 34 points, nine rebounds and six assists against the Nets on Friday — was shooting 91.6% from the line. 

But against the Celtics, Hawks and Nets this week, he shot a combined 24 for 34, 70.5%. 

Gilgeous-Alexander went 10 of 15 against the Nets, the first time he’d missed five free throws in a game since Nov. 16, 2022, when he went 12 of 17 in a win against the Wizards. 

Get-right game?

The Thunder’s four-game road trip continues Monday against the Washington Wizards, and that’s important for two reasons. 

First, it means two days off. The sluggish starts against the Hawks and Nets would seem to indicate the Thunder use the break and it will go Saturday and Sunday without a game.  

Second, it means Monday is a chance to get back on track. (Almost) everybody beats the Wiz, who enter Saturday’s game against the Knicks with a 6-28 record. 

The Thunder figures to be favored. But it was favored Friday, too. And though the Hawks were a slight betting favorite Wednesday, nobody expected the blitz Atlanta delivered out of the gate. 

So given two straight slow starts against sub-.500 opponents, you might think Daigneault could spot a common denominator to address before the Wizards game. 

But it’s not really how he’s wired. 

“I’ve just found that if you start to react to any small-sample trend, you end up chasing your shadow and missing out on the opportunity in front of you,” Daigneault said. “So we have to learn the lessons from these games, for sure. And we’ll do that and we’ll stare at them, but at the same time we need to turn the page and get ourselves back to zero and put our best foot forward against Washington.”

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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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