Stops are a struggle, but Thunder offense tops Wizards to snap losing streak

Stops are a struggle, but Thunder offense tops Wizards to snap losing streak

A faster start, big nights from its Big Three and an unselfish approach helped the Thunder outlast the struggling Wizards for a win that snapped a two-game losing streak.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 8, 2024, 11:18pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 8, 2024, 11:18pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mark Daigneault called it “a lot different” than the Thunder’s past two games, and certainly the outcome Monday in Washington, D.C., was a total turnaround. 

OKC beat the Wizards 136-128 at Capital One Arena to snap a two-game losing streak. Its offense was spectacular and its defense was better than it had been in last week’s back-to-back losses. 

Still, they were there to be found if you were seeking similarities. 

As in last week’s losses at Atlanta and Brooklyn, the Thunder’s opponent Monday did damage from long range (the Wizards hit 15 of 32 3-pointers) and at the free-throw line (Washington was 25 of 29). 

But Daigneault saw a distinction between the third game and the first two. 

“I thought our intensity and how hard we played tonight was much, much better,” he told reporters in Washington. “And I thought there were times in those other two games where we gave up a lot of unearned stuff, and I didn’t think much tonight was unearned.” 

The Thunder (24-11) certainly weren’t handed a win. 

Washington (6-30) is among the NBA’s worst teams, and though it has proven capable of big offensive nights, they aren’t the norm. 

The Wizards rank 25th in the league in offensive rating and last in defensive rating. They’re being outscored this season by 10.2 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst in the NBA. Over its past three games entering Monday, Washington had averaged 98.7 points. 

But the Wizards don’t lack pure offensive talent. Washington is capable of a hot shooting night, and it had one. The Thunder saw that as more reflective of the any-team-on-any-night nature of the league than of its defensive approach. 

Three takeaways from a streak-snapping loss:

Similar, but different 

The biggest difference between Monday’s win and last week’s losses might have come in the first quarter. 

The Thunder led by as many as 11 points in the first against the Wizards, a notable difference from its losses to the Hawks and Nets, who combined to outscore OKC 78-46 in the first quarter. 

Though the Thunder saw its defense as significantly improved from last week — more intense, despite the Wizards’ hot shooting — it ran into some of the same issues, notably at what have of late become opponents’ power lines. 

Through the first three games of this four-game road trip, the Thunder has given up a combined 43 3-pointers and sent its opponents to the free-throw line an average of 31.7 times. 

Seven of the Thunder’s past eight opponents have attempted at least 29 free throws. Five of them shot 30 or more. Over that eight-game span, OKC’s opponents are averaging 29 free-throw attempts; the Thunder is getting to the line an average of 20 times per game. 

“Playing OKC, they’re a team that (has) a lot of great length and good defenders, but they foul a lot,” Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma told reporters in D.C. “So we took advantage of that. We got downhill, made the right plays.”

Chet on track

The Thunder’s big three — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams — was at its offensive best against the Wizards, scoring a combined 84 points. 

It was the fifth time this season that Gilgeous-Alexander (32 points), Holmgren (31) and Williams (21) each had scored 20 or more in the same game. 

But from a scoring perspective, Holmgren’s night stood out most. He made 4 of 5 3-pointers, the fourth time this season he’s made at least four. 

Holmgren added four dunks on a wildly versatile scoring night that he supplemented with four rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. 

Afterward, Kuzma called the Thunder rookie “a beast.” 

“He’s able to really eat off of the talented players on his team,” Kuzma said. “He can play within himself in the role that they have him in, and you’ll see it. Some nights like tonight he’ll have 30. Some nights he may have 16 and 14, eight blocks. He does a great job at, being so young, understanding the game and playing off of Shai, playing off of J-Dub, playing off of (Josh) Giddey’s playmaking (and) passing.”

The players around him in particular draw defenders to give Holmgren open jumpers, and Holmgren of late has rediscovered his 3-point shooting groove. 

In the eight games since a 1-for-6 3-point shooting night against the Lakers, Holmgren has shot 52.6% on 4.8 long-range attempts per game. 

Holmgren’s had his ups and downs as a shooter. In one four-game stretch earlier this season he went a combined 2 for 17 on 3-pointers. 

“I feel like that was in my head a little bit…,” Holmgren said. “Like, I was putting pressure on myself like, ‘I got to make every shot.’  I feel like as a perfectionist in a way, I had to kind of get over that and understand that the game’s not perfect. By being ready and just (having) confidence to shoot the ball, you’re gonna shoot the ball better.”

Playmaking prowess

The Thunder on Monday broke through its 35-assist plateau, dishing out a season-high 37. OKC had finished with 35 assists three times this season. 

Willams led the way against the Wizards, finishing with a season-high 10 assists. It was his first double-digit assist game this season and the third of his career. 

He’s averaging 4.2 assists this season, up from 3.3 as a rookie last season. 

Williams on Monday dished assists to six different teammates, including Aaron Wiggins, the recipient of three of Williams’ four second-quarter assists. Williams set up Holmgren (twice), Gilgeous-Alexander, Isaiah Joe, Josh Giddey and Kenrich Williams. 

Jalen Williams has increased opportunities this season to be a playmaker, starting the second and fourth quarters when Gilgeous-Alexander takes his customary rests. 

But he also credits a growing familiarity with his teammates for his uptick in sharing. 

“Especially with how we sub, we’re gonna play with everybody on the floor,” he said. “So I think just understanding my team and getting more comfortable with them allows me to do stuff like that.”

Jalen Williams, Holmgren and Gilgeous-Alexander (five) were among four Thunder players with at least five assists against the Wizards. Giddey had nine. 

OKC is 10-1 this season when it records at least 30 assists with its only loss coming last week to the Hawks. To snap out of a losing skid with customary ball movement, Jalen Williams said, was notable. 

“Everybody’s playing really unselfish right now,” Jalen Williams said. “Which is good, because we dropped two games that we felt like we could have won, so I think for us to have this game and not part ways with each other but rather move the ball and come out the way we did, that kind of speaks volumes (about) our team.”

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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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