Thunder effort wanes against Pistons in worst loss of season

Thunder effort wanes against Pistons in worst loss of season

The Pistons won for the first time this season against a team with a winning record, shaking off a sluggish start to stun the Thunder. What went wrong in OKC’s worst loss of the season? What didn’t?

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 28, 2024, 8:29pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 28, 2024, 8:29pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder’s list of advantages Sunday in Detroit was long. 

The Pistons were playing a matinee in the second game of a back-to-back. The Thunder had a day off on Saturday. Detroit was playing without its best player, guard Cade Cunningham. 

And the big one: The Thunder entered the afternoon as one of the NBA’s best teams this season, Detroit by record its worst. 

The final score — Pistons 120, Thunder 104 — was a reminder that nothing (not even this) is a given in the NBA. 

The stunning result was OKC’s worst loss this season, and there’s a strong case for it as the worst for any NBA team in 2023-24, given the gap in stakes for the two teams and the absence of Cunningham, the former Oklahoma State star who averages 22.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists for the Pistons. 

In beating the Thunder (32-14), Detroit won for the first time this season against a team with a winning record. 

It’s now 1-25 in those games. 

The Pistons (6-40) have been outscored this season by 9.5 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder has outscored opponents by 8.1 per 100. 

But after a quick start — OKC got out to a 15-5 first-quarter lead — Detroit played with more urgency and more effort. The Thunder defense couldn’t string together stops. 

And though OKC made a respectable 47.8% of its shots, it was 8 of 28 (28.6%) from 3-point range. The Thunder’s 17 assists were two more than its season low and marked only the second time this season it’s had fewer than 20. 

“There’s 82 wins and 82 losses on an NBA schedule,” Thunder forward Jalen Williams told reporters in Detroit. “Anybody can beat anybody, anybody can lose to anybody and we kind of took that for granted tonight. I think we played a little selfish and they took advantage of that, hit a lot of shots, so credit them.” 

Three takeaways from a day when a lot went wrong:

A for effort

The Thunder forces 15.9 turnovers per game, the most in the NBA, and scores a league-best 20 points per game off them. 

The Pistons had nine turnovers Sunday, leading to 12 Thunder points. The Thunder’s 10 turnovers led to 18 Piston points. 

Detroit held the Thunder to four fast-break points — well below OKC’s 15.7 per-game average — while scoring 15 points via the fast break. 

Some of that came down to Detroit’s superior effort. 

The Pistons fought harder for loose balls and outrebounded the Thunder 53-43. Jalen Duren had 22 points and 21 rebounds for the Pistons, nine of those boards at the offensive end. 

Detroit drove hard downhill and drew fouls, shooting 15 of 19 at the free-throw line to OKC’s 8 for 12.

“I thought it was a ton of multiple full-effort plays,” Pistons coach Monty Williams said. “When you can come up with these 50-50 balls, they are a game changer. You talk about free throws, rebounds and turnovers and if you can win in all three of those categories, you pretty much win the game.”

The Pistons did. 

And though the loss looks worse for the Thunder than the win looks good for Detroit, Mark Daigneault didn’t blast his team’s effort in a postgame news conference, preferring to emphasize what Detroit did well. 

“We obviously could’ve played better, but I also don’t want to take anything away from the way that they played,” Daigneault said. “I mean, they’ve obviously had a tough season and they brought the juice today, and they outplayed us on this day. So credit to them and the way that they played, the energy they brought. They deserved to win the game.”

Shai scores, sits

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 31 points on 13-for-20 shooting Sunday, his 34th game this season with 30 or more points. 

He did that in 29 minutes, none in the fourth quarter.

Gilgeous-Alexander typically rests to open second and fourth quarters — he generally plays the first and third in their entirety — and averages 6.3 minutes per fourth quarter. 

But he stayed on the bench for the full fourth quarter Sunday, for a few reasons. 

First, the Thunder never made a push to put itself in position for Gilgeous-Alexander to try and save the day late. It trailed by 16 to open the fourth quarter and never got closer than 14. 

Second, OKC has — like so many teams — had a grueling January, and there’s more value in resting Gilgeous-Alexander than inserting him late into a game that was a lost cause. 

And finally, the Thunder hosts the Timberwolves on Monday in a game between the top two teams in the Western Conference. 

So Daigneault used starters Williams (six minutes) and Chet Holmgren (two) briefly in the fourth quarter, didn’t play Lu Dort or Gilgeous-Alexander at all and let Josh Giddey play with 10 minutes with lineups that mostly featured reserves, including Aaron Wiggins, Lindy Waters III and Cason Wallace. 

In debating bringing back Gilgeous-Alexander, Daigneault said he “kicked it around” but ultimately opted to play mainly reverses. 

“I think it’s always a balance,” Daigneault said. “If I thought we had what we needed to get back in the game, then I obviously would have done it. But with the way the game was going, I just didn’t feel it. And with the schedule we’ve had leading into this and the schedule we have coming out of it. I thought it was wise to just let those guys play”

No rest for the weary

The Thunder won’t get much time to stew on Sunday’s loss. 

The Wolves enter Monday night coming off their own embarrassing loss — on the road Saturday against the 9-36 Spurs — and the bounce-back is important for Minnesota and OKC. 

The Thunder leads the season series 2-1 and with a win Monday would clinch a tiebreaker for postseason seeding purposes. 

“You never feel good after a game like that,” Daigneault said. “So that’s the best thing about the NBA schedule is it keeps turning and tomorrow’s a new opportunity. Obviously a big challenge for us tomorrow against a team that we just beat on the road, and that we’ve played a bunch of times already this year.” 

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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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