OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder can beat its opponents in so many ways, but it has a pair of preferences.
OKC punishes you in the paint with drives and cuts and finishes at the rim; it thrashes you at the 3-point line with good shots generated by dribble penetration and ball and player movement.
When neither thing works, OKC is in some trouble.
Little wonder then that on Monday — as the Thunder struggled to score inside and out and star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looked like some mere mortal — the Lakers largely manhandled OKC, winning 112-105 at Crypto.com Arena.
The Lakers’ length — and their zone defense — cut down on the Thunder’s typical aggressiveness around the rim, and without the drive-and-kicks that can create so many good looks from 3-point range, OKC stagnated some. The ball stalled.
The jump shots — some of them open, regardless — often came off a single pass. And they rarely dropped.
It’s easy to chalk up the loss to some poor shooting — the Thunder went 15 of 49 from 3-point range and it is as they say a make-or-miss league — but OKC understood it was something more.
“We just let their length get in the game,” Thunder forward Jalen Williams told reporters after the game.
The Lakers start LeBron James and Anthony Davis and bring long bodies off the bench — Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Christian Wood — off the bench in waves.
On Monday that gave the Thunder (27-12) fits.
“The Lakers have size all across the board, as well as athleticism,” Thunder center Chet Holmgren said. “They’re gonna bring the intensity. So when they hit you, you got to hit them back. Otherwise they’re just going to try and punk you if you let them.”
Takeaways from a road-trip-opening loss:
A paint and perimeter problem
The size and athleticism Holmgren was talking about were never more evident than when the Lakers played zone.
OKC struggled to penetrate it, and the presence of Anthony Davis — and his backup, Wood — gave the Thunder tall targets to shoot over even when it found its way into the lane.
The Thunder averages 54.7 points in the paint. It scored 34 Monday; the Lakers poured in 64, 18 more than OKC’s opponents average.
On average, the Thunder makes 27.5 field goals in the paint and shoots 45.9. On Monday it was 22 of 39, compared to the Lakers’ 32 of 51.
The Thunder’s 30.6% shooting from 3-point range only compounded the issue. Daigneault said he was “satisfied” with the “decent looks” the Thunder got from long range.
“But it’s more about the way we play and whether or not that yields efficient shots,” Daigneault said. “I thought we left something to be desired there tonight on a lot of possessions. If we play the right way and it ends up being a 3 we have no problem with that.”
The Thunder on Monday didn’t always play the right way. Daigneault said cutting — typically a Thunder area of expertise — could have helped counter the Lakers’ approach, but there wasn’t enough of it.
There were too many possessions, he said, where OKC wasn’t willing to “move the floor,” to get the Lakers’ defense chasing ball and player movement.
The Thunder shot 41.7%, its third-lowest number of the season.
“Our zone offense was not good tonight, clearly,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. I’m not too sure exactly what it was. We’ll figure that out and get ready for tomorrow. But we could all feel it wasn’t our greatest.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s line wasn’t bad — 24 points, three rebounds, six assists — but by his standard it was an off night.
That marked the sixth time in 38 games this season that Gilgeous-Alexander was held under 25 points.
It was unclear if he was impacted by the sprained right knee that threatened his participation — the Thunder listed him as questionable all day, and his playing was a game-time decision — but the Lakers’ defense made him work for his points.
He made 9 of 19 shots and missed all but one of his six 3-point attempts. For the second time in four games, Gilgeous-Alexander got to the free-throw line five times.
He hit all five, but that’s a win for the Lakers’ defense given that Gilgeous-Alexander averages 7.6 made free throws, second-most in the NBA.
The Lakers started with wing Taurean Prince on Gilgeous-Alexander, but a host of defenders took their turns, including the 6-foot-8 Vanderbilt. And Los Angeles trapped Gilgeous-Alexander in different spots on the floor — along the sideline; on the baseline — an approach that seemed to keep him off balance.
Gilgeous-Alexander had three turnovers, including two offensive fouls.
“Shai is a tough cover,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “There’s no one man that’s gonna stop Shai. You have to run several people at him, make him see different bodies.”
In falling on Monday, the Thunder lost on paper the most winnable game of its brutal four-game road trip.
After the Clippers on Tuesday in Los Angeles, OKC is off to Salt Lake City to play the Jazz. Those two opponents are 23-7 in their past 30 games combined.
The trip ends Saturday at Minnesota for a game against the West-leading Timberwolves.
Gilgeous-Alexander said the Thunder’s first game in Los Angeles should make it “easier” to focus on the second.
“We just got beat,” he said. “Obviously we’re not happy with the performance. I think we’ll be a little more motivated.”