Variety show: Thunder rides defense to 107-83 win in New Orleans

Variety show: Thunder rides defense to 107-83 win in New Orleans

Chet Holmgren and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had big offensive games, but the Thunder defense carried the day at New Orleans, helping OKC roll to a 107-83 win.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 27, 2024, 6:32am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 27, 2024, 6:32am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder changed TV networks Friday night, and you might have been confused by what you saw. 

Not by the broadcast. The Thunder’s game in New Orleans looked much the same on KSBI — the team’s Friday night over-the-air broadcast home for the rest of the season — as it does on Bally Sports Oklahoma. 

Commentators Chris Fisher and Michael Cage are the same. The cast of players, too. 

No, the jarring part was how much the characters on your favorite show had changed. 

An episode before, they’d been in San Antonio scoring a season-high in points. And then on Friday, the scene had shifted and so had the tone. Shots in New Orleans went awry, and the scoring was neither big nor easy. 

The Thunder went on to pummel the Pelicans 107-83. But it didn’t look much like that high-scoring, freewheeling 140-114 rout of the Spurs on Wednesday. 

That’s probably just as well. 

Though OKC has provided its share of drama and more than a few laughers, it’s proving more than anything else this season to be a variety show. 

You want action scenes, racing down the court and lighting up the scoreboard? The Thunder (32-13) can do that. You want more of a period piece, turning back the clock to a lower-scoring era? OKC is getting more comfortable there, too. 

“It’s extremely important,” center Chet Holmgren told reporters after a 20-point, 13 rebound performance against the Pelicans. “No two games are gonna be the same. And if you’re doing something well, teams are gonna try and take that away. So you have to be able to adjust in real time — in games, from game to game, week to week.”

And the Thunder needs more rehearsal in games like Friday’s. 

OKC is 10-2 this season when it scores at least 130 points. With Friday’s win, it improved to 3-6 when it scores fewer than 110. But two of those three wins have come this month — Friday in New Orleans and last Saturday at Minnesota. 

Learning to win in different ways is a process, and the Thunder is still learning new scripts. But it’s finding its footing in a range of genres — shootouts, slugfests and everything in between. 

“We’re getting more and more comfortable being in these situations with each other,” forward Jalen Williams said. “Now that we’re 40-some games in and we’ve been through a lot of adversity throughout the year, we kind of know what we can fall back on when adversity does hit.”

More takeaways from the Thunder’s win over the Pelicans: 

No room, but board

The Thunder strives to put offensive players in a crowd, and it was fantastic Friday in limiting the Pelicans’ space. 

New Orleans came into the game on an offensive heater, having averaged 127.4 points over its previous eight games. It had scored 130 or more four times in that stretch, including a franchise-record 153 on Tuesday against the Jazz. 

The Pelicans played Friday without star forward Zion Williamson — out with a left foot bone contusion — and that surely impacted its offense. 

But so did a Thunder defense that crowded New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, limiting him to 12 points on 5 for 9 shooting. 

The Pelicans’ 83 points were a season low. They hit 39 percent of their shots and 9 of 36 3-pointers. 

“I thought we set a really good tone of physicality early,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “Both teams. It was a really physical game in the first quarter, first half, and we were able to sustain a really high level defensively tonight really throughout. There wasn’t much that they got that was easy. So a lot of credit to our guys. That’s a hell of a physical output.”

The Thunder didn’t just get stops. 

It grabbed rebounds. 

The Pelicans won 110-106 in Oklahoma City on Nov. 1 despite shooting 39.2%, and the key was a 27-8 edge in second-chance points. New Orleans that night had 22 offensive rebounds and outrebounded Oklahoma City 58-49. 

On Friday, the Thunder had a 45-41 rebounding edge and outscored the Pelicans 12-10 in second-chance opportunities. 

Chet Holmgren: Tough guy

Given its success on the boards in Oklahoma City, it was perhaps no surprise that New Orleans came into Friday looking to take advantage of its physicality in the paint. 

And Jonas Valanciunas tried. 

The 6-foot-11 center — who has 10 years and 57 pounds on the 7-foot-1, 208-pound Holmgren — had his moments around the rim, scoring 14 points, and he grabbed five of the Pelicans’ eight offensive rebounds. 

But Valanciunas, who came into the game shooting 61.6% on two-point shots, was 6 of 12 from the floor. And Holmgren had one of the best nights of a strong rookie season, finishing with 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocked shots.

Holmgren made it hard for Valanciunas and the Pelicans to get going around the rim — New Orleans shot 19 for 40 in the paint — and keeping up with Holmgren at the other end was taxing for Valanciunas. 

Pelicans coach Willie Green went with a smaller starting lineup to open the second half, benching Valanciunas for the smaller and more mobile Larry Nance Jr. 

Teams often attempt to make Holmgren guard centers with more bulk, and they’ve had mixed results. But defending him can be a big ask for physical-but-lumbering big men.

And Holmgren isn’t as easy to knock around as he looks like he might be. 

“Obviously Chet, that was one of the knocks on him coming into the NBA,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But he’s so tough, he’s so mentally strong that he fights all night and makes up for it. And that’s just who he is, who he’s been all season. So no surprise to me but Chet was obviously really good tonight, as usual.”

An All-Star game 

Even when the Thunder’s shots didn’t drop, Gilgeous-Alexander found ways to keep its offense afloat. 

He finished Friday night with 31 points — his league-leading 33rd game with 30 or more — shooting 10 of 21 from the floor and 8 for 9 from the free-throw line. 

On a night when no other player in the game got to the line more than five times, those free throws were a boost to an OKC offense that needed one. 

And though the Thunder opened up the game later, Gilgeous-Alexander again showed a knack for carrying the scoring load until the cavalry arrives.

It’s one reason he’s averaging 31.1 points, and that’s one reason why he was named Thursday as a Western Conference starting guard in the Feb. 18 NBA All-Star Game. 

Gilgeous-Alexander was the top vote-getting West guard among players and media after finishing third in the fan voting. He called it an “honor” and a “blessing” to be voted first “by my peers, the people that do the same job as me every night.” 

Not everyone does it as well. Holmgren said it was good to see that recognized outside the Thunder locker room. 

“Because it’s pretty undeniable what he does every single night,” Holmgren said. “I’m sure there’s people on every team voting for him, because there’s not a night where it’s like, ‘He wasn’t an All-Star tonight.’ He brings it every night, and that’s huge for us, and he’s gonna continue to do that for a long time.”

Share with your crowd
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.

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; The Oklahoma City Thunder bench watch the final minute of their game against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Does OKC need more Aaron Wiggins?

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder fans cheer as their team scores against the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Thunder-Mavericks: Why these playoffs might spawn a new OKC rival

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket beside Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    OKC fans chanted ‘Luka sucks,’ but Doncic’s play said otherwise

  • Tailgating on The Grove on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Ms., on Saturday September 15, 2018.

Pre309

    OU’s move to the SEC: Listing the things to look foward to

  • Ireland travelblog: Farewell to the Emerald Isle, which keep Americans coming

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; The Oklahoma City Thunder bench watch the final minute of their game against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Does OKC need more Aaron Wiggins?

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder fans cheer as their team scores against the Dallas Mavericks during the second quarter of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    Thunder-Mavericks: Why these playoffs might spawn a new OKC rival

  • May 9, 2024; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) drives to the basket beside Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the second half of game two of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Paycom Center. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

    OKC fans chanted ‘Luka sucks,’ but Doncic’s play said otherwise

  • Tailgating on The Grove on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Ms., on Saturday September 15, 2018.

Pre309

    OU’s move to the SEC: Listing the things to look foward to

  • Ireland travelblog: Farewell to the Emerald Isle, which keep Americans coming