The Thunder slowed down on the road. Here’s why that could be a positive

The Thunder slowed down on the road. Here’s why that could be a positive

The Thunder didn’t play at its typical fast pace during a four-game road swing. But the slower pace could pay dividends later.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 22, 2024, 10:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 22, 2024, 10:00am CST

(This story originally appeared in the This Week in Thunder with Brett Dawson newsletter. Subscribe here)

OKLAHOMA CITY — The pass had led Josh Giddey astray, and so the Thunder guard scrambled to corral it. Nearing the sideline on the Timberwolves’ side of halfcourt, he did what any self-respecting dazzling passer would do. 

He saved it behind his back to teammate Jalen Williams. 

Williams was inside his 3-point line when he gave the ball up to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who drove and got it back to Williams for a tough layup.  

The whole thing took about seven seconds. 

And though it was more frenetic than the Thunder typically is, it was representative of the way OKC wants to play. Fast. Frenetic. Defense-to-offense in a blink. 

Last week, the Thunder didn’t do that as much. 

And that’s why a 2-2 road trip might pay big dividends. 

“We’re going to be a better team because of these games, including the losses,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault told reporters after the Minnesota game. 

One reason why: Some of the games were played at a playoff pace. 

The Thunder ranks seventh in the NBA in pace, a measure less of breakneck speed than of possessions created. It’s an indicator of playing fast, but also of, say, generating turnovers, which OKC does better than anyone. 

 A team’s pace is the number of possessions it averages per 48 minutes. For the season, the Thunder is at 101.2. 

During last week’s four-game road trip, that number dipped to 98.6. For the full season, that would rank 22nd in the league. 

Against the Lakers, Clippers and Wolves, the Thunder averaged 96.7 possessions. It got just 94 possessions in a 128-117 loss to the Clippers. 

That’s notable because NBA games tend to slow down in the playoffs. Last season, 11 of the 16 teams to make the playoffs played at a slower pace than in the regular season, and the average team had about two fewer possessions in the postseason than all teams in the regular season. 

That might seem negligible, but in high-stakes games when every possession counts, losing two of them matters. 

Teams tend to commit fewer turnovers in the postseason and isolation possessions — one-on-one plays, typically by a star player — tend to be more frequent. All of it can lead to longer — and therefore fewer — possessions. 

So OKC’s experience last week can prove valuable not only in facing four hostile environments against four teams loaded with talent — three of them among the best and/or hottest in the Western Conference — but in playing at a pace that more closely resembles the one coming in April and beyond. 

The Thunder scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions on the trip, down from 119.8 for the season. Its defense, which allows 111.7 points per 100, gave up 118.3. 

Those aren’t impressive numbers. But they’re instructive. 

And the Thunder took some lessons from starting 0-2 on the road and salvaging a split, particularly in the way it rallied from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Wolves, who lost for the third time in 20 home games. 

“I think part of it was just having an understanding that the Wolves are a really good defensive team, especially in the halfcourt,” OKC center Chet Holmgren said. “So when the game slows down, we can’t just rely on one side of the floor. Obviously we were down at one point and we were able to get the offense going enough to get us back in the game, but we weren’t gonna win the game if we didn’t get stops, and we knew that.”

The lessons in defense are key. And those can serve the Thunder well moving forward. 

“It’s the NBA; you’re playing 82, so there’s gonna be a good amount of games where you don’t shoot well,” forward Jalen Williams said. “So you got to find other ways to win, and basketball is so much more than shooting and in scoring in that regard. So the fact that we were able to understand that and just kind of lock in defensively was big for us.”

This Week in Thunder

Portland, 7 p.m. Tuesday (Paycom Center)

TV: Bally Sports Oklahoma 

What to watch: The Thunder and Blazers have played twice this season, and OKC has won the games by an average of 52.5 points, including last week’s 139-77 win at Paycom Center that set a franchise record for victory margin. The Thunder is scoring 139.3 points per 100 possessions against Portland, 9.2 more than any other opponent. 

At San Antonio, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday (Frost Bank Center)

TV: ESPN, Bally Sports Oklahoma

What to watch: Officially, it’s Chet-Wemby II (the preseason edition doesn’t count), and the hope — especially at ESPN — is that this Chet Holmgren-Victor Wembanyama matchup lives up to the hype. The first regular-season meeting Nov. 14 was a bust for TNT, with OKC winning by 36 points and quiet nights from Holmgren (nine points, 3-for-10 shooting) and Wembanyama (eight points, 4 for 15). 

At New Orleans, 7 p.m. Friday (Smoothie King Center)

TV:  KSBI OKC 

What to watch: The Pelicans have beaten OKC once this season, and at times New Orleans has looked like one of the NBA’s best teams. But this is less about what to watch than how. This will be the Thunder’s first game this season broadcast over the air in Oklahoma, and it will not be available on Bally Sports or via the Bally app. The team has a web page with a full list of TV stations to find the affiliate in your area. 

At Detroit, 5 p.m. Sunday (Little Caesars Arena)

TV: Bally Sports Oklahoma 

What to watch: There are no must-win games in January, but can there be a can’t-lose? Entering a Monday game against Milwaukee, the Pistons were 4-38. As this week opens, the Pistons haven’t beaten a team this season with a winning record (0-23) and have played just four games decided by three points or fewer, going 1-3. 

 

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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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