In beating red-hot Jazz, Thunder hits the same tunes it’s played all season

In beating red-hot Jazz, Thunder hits the same tunes it’s played all season

The Thunder won a thriller Thursday at Utah, wrapping up the first half of the regular season in style. It was the kind of win that’s become the hallmark of a breakout season.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 19, 2024, 9:10am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 19, 2024, 9:10am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — There was the explosive offense. The timely defense. The poise under pressure. 

The Thunder’s 133-129 win Thursday at Utah looked a lot like so much of this season has. In beating the NBA’s hottest team on its home floor, OKC closed out game 41 — and reached the midway point of the season — with another in a growing stack of head-turning wins. 

Halfway through the season, the Thunder (28-13) is two games back of West-leading Minnesota, the team it’ll play Saturday night in Minneapolis. 

To stay ahead of third-place Denver, OKC had to snap the Jazz’s six-game winning streak Thursday night at Delta Center. Utah (22-21) had won 15 of 19 since a Dec. 11 loss in Oklahoma City. 

The Jazz hadn’t lost a home game since Dec. 8, winning nine in a row before Thursday. 

And though Utah never led and trailed in the first quarter by as many as 19 points, it made the Thunder work until the wire. 

“We’re not feeling 100% and yet really competed for 48 minutes together on both ends,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault told reporters after the game. “They’re the hottest team in the league coming in. They play with a lot of confidence. They put a lot of game pressure on us. The crowd was great. It was a great experience for us.”

Add it to the list. 

The Thunder is racking up great experiences — blowing out good teams; beating the NBA’s elite, including on the road; losing in back-and-forth battles on tired legs. 

It’s all good for a young team the core of which hasn’t been in a playoff series together. 

A look at the first half of the Thunder’s apparent breakout season, through the lens of Thursday’s win: 

Best win 

A prisoner of the moment might rank the Jazz win as the Thunder’s most impressive of the season, given the circumstances. 

Not only was Utah red-hot coming in, but OKC was fighting to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season after back-to-back losses this week in Los Angeles to the Lakers and Clippers. And with the first-place Wolves looming, a loss to the Jazz would have made real the prospect of an 0-4 road trip. 

While the Jazz win belongs on the shortlist, the Thunder’s best first-half win remains a 118-117 thriller Dec. 16 at Denver. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made the go-ahead bucket with 0.9 seconds to play to cap a comeback win. 

OKC went on to win again at Denver 13 days later, this time in a blowout. But the sheer last-second thrill of the earlier win — coupled with the Thunder’s 33-point home loss to the Nuggets on Oct. 29 — was a sign of how far the young team had come in a short span. 

Worst loss

There’s a shorter list of contenders here, and it’s hard not to hand the (dis)honor to a 124-115 road loss to the Nets, given the mediocre season unfolding in Brooklyn. 

But defensive rebounding —  a weak spot the Thunder has worked hard to minimize — rarely has been a more glaring issue than in OKC’s 110-106 home loss to the Pelicans on Nov. 1. 

New Orleans — playing without leading scorer Brandon Ingram — had 22 offensive rebounds and 27 second-chance points, winning on a night when it shot 39.2% from the floor. 

Best individual performance 

There’s been so much Gilgeous-Alexander brilliance that it’s hard to narrow it down to just one game. 

But SGA’s 40-point, seven-rebound, six-assist showing in a 130-123 overtime win Nov. 18 at Golden State has some separation from the rest. 

Even putting aside the gaudy numbers, his overtime takeover — including a block of a Steph Curry jumper that turned into a Gilgeous-Alexander layup at the other end — made this one a showstopper. 

It’s natural sometimes to take Gilgeous-Alexander’s greatness for granted. He had 31 points, six rebounds and six assists Thursday against Utah and it never felt like he found a rhythm. 

But in 40 games through the first half of the season, he’s scored 30 or more points 29 times, and as the NBA turns the page to the second half, he’s considered one of the frontrunners — along with Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Denver’s Nikola Jokic — for league MVP. 

Best highlight 

Between Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams, the Thunder has filled Instagram reels with rewatchable plays. 

There were some Thursday in Salt Lake City, including an impossible fadeaway jumper Gilgeous-Alexander buried from 21 feet out with 1:12 to go, giving OKC a six-point cushion. 

Willams’ high-flying dunks and Holmgren’s perfectly-timed blocks — including one Thursday on Utah’s Walker Kessler that turned away a layup attempt in a four-point game with 12.4 seconds to play — have built buzz on social media. 

But for all the Holmgren highlights at the defensive end, it’s a jump shot that tops this list. It comes from the same Golden State game Gilgeous-Alexander dominated in overtime. Holmgren gave him the chance. 

The rookie’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent the game to an extra period, a moment that left Gilgeous-Alexander’s eyes popped and jaw dropped and gave an early boost to Holmgren’s Rookie of the Year campaign. 

Breakout player 

With Gilgeous-Alexander on the bench and Utah charging hard at the start of Thursday’s fourth quarter, Jalen Williams took center stage. 


It’s become his comfort zone of late. 

Williams’ leap from rookie standout to sophomore star got off to a sluggish start — his first 20-point night didn’t come until the seventh game of the season — but lately he’s barreling toward the next level. 

His season numbers are solid — 18.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists per game — but lately Williams has found another second-year gear. 

In January, he’s averaging 21.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists, shooting 65.9% from the floor and 63% from 3-point range. And in 10 fourth quarters this month, Williams has scored 95 points, making 38 of 52 shots and 9 of 11 3-pointers. 

Against the Jazz on Thursday, Williams scored 11 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. 

“I mean, he’s been doing that,” Daigneault said. “He’s been on one lately in the fourth quarter, throughout the games. Super efficient.”

On Thursday Williams also spent much of the game guarding 7-foot Jazz win Lauri Markkanen. 

“That’s, like,  the invisible thing,” Daigneault said. “You look at the box score, you see (Williams’) shotmaking and it puts the attention on his offense. But the guy lines up and guards a premier matchup every night.” 

Biggest surprise 

Cason Wallace was the No. 10 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, and it’s not supposed to be surprising when No. 10 picks perform well. 

But given the logjam in the OKC backcourt — including the offseason addition of European veteran (but NBA rookie) Vasilije Micic — it wasn’t easy to see where the Thunder could find minutes for Wallace. 

As it turns out, he’s forced the team’s hand. 

Though overshadowed by fellow rookie Holmgren, Wallace has been a rotational revelation, a bench fixture and spot starter — he filled in for ill Lu Dort on Thursday — who has thrived in the open spaces created by superstars. 

“He knows what he brings to the game,” Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters in Utah. “He knows his job every night and he does it at an A+ level every night. Whether the ball is going in or not, he always brings toughness, physicality and good decision-making to the floor and he just did it again.”

Against the Jazz, the ball was going in. Wallace broke out of a shooting slump, scoring a career-high 16 points on 6 of 7 field goals, including 4 of 5 3-pointers. 

Ultimately the Thunder wants the rookie from Kentucky to expand his offensive game, and he’s shown signs of more off-the-dribble aggressiveness, including a slashing layup against the Jazz. 

But he’s earned minutes with his defense and his willingness to plug into any role. Though he’s mostly a spot-up shooter, the 6-foot-3 Wallace has been used as a cutter and as a threat in the dunker’s spot around the rim, a position usually reserved for bigger players.

On Thursday, Daigneault lauded Wallace for his “poise” and “mental toughness” and credited Gilgeous-Alexander for the confidence to pass him the ball with 52.1 seconds for an open 3-pointer that Wallace drilled to give OKC a 133-126 lead. 

“(Wallace is) not flinching,” Daigneault said. “He’s really been like that from the get-go.”

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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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