The Timberwolves tame the tired Thunder with tenacious defense

The Timberwolves tame the tired Thunder with tenacious defense

The Thunder faced a dominant defense and its own tired legs and couldn’t overcome either Monday against the Timberwolves. “We didn’t embrace the imperfection of the game,” coach Mark Daigneault said.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 30, 2024, 6:36am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 30, 2024, 6:36am CST

(Get Brett Dawson’s This Week in Thunder newsletter in your inbox. Subscribe here.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — There was a moment when it seemed Chet Holmgren had a path. 

Midway through the fourth quarter of Monday’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder’s cutting rookie center took a pass from teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and it looked — at least briefly — like if he rushed he could flush a baseline dunk. 

And then Rudy Gobert was there, and the opportunity was gone, turned away by the Minnesota center, the only shot he blocked in a game he nevertheless controlled around the rim. 

There was no explosion in Holmgren’s attempt. It looked tentative. And tired. 

And it was emblematic of how things went for the Thunder’s offense in a 107-101 loss to the Wolves. 

It was a hard and hard-fought night for the top two teams in the Western Conference, the Thunder (32-15) playing a day after a road loss to lowly Detroit, the Wolves (33-14) — with a day of rest between — looking to bounce back from a similarly shocking setback at San Antonio.

Both teams looked to be running on fumes, but still, it was a battle befitting their spots in the standings. Minnesota fought a little harder, navigated the muck more deftly. 

“It was an uncomfortable game, I think for both teams,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “And we got to embrace the discomfort of the game in a high-level game like that.”

The Thunder has been great this season, Daigneault noted, and grinding its way through such games, including a win at Minnesota earlier this month. It couldn’t match that in Monday’s meeting. 

The Thunder made tired mistakes. OKC’s defensive pressure didn’t always meet Its seasonlong standard — in a hotly contested game, it left good shooters with clean 3-point looks in the corners. 

And the Thunder offense at times looked stuck in mud, a probable product of Minnesota’s league-best defense and OKC’s tired legs. 

It was the Thunder’s 16th game in January, its fifth back-to-back of the month. 

It’s the first time Holmgren has been through this kind of grind. Backup guard Cason Wallace, too. It’s only the second NBA go-round for starting wing Jalen Williams, who left Monday’s game late in the fourth quarter with an apparent ankle injury. 

“It’s a challenge when you haven’t done it many times or haven’t done it a lot,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said of the grueling month. “It’s hard getting adjusted to. Now with that being said, the NBA doesn’t care, your opponents don’t care. Nobody cares. You got to fight through it and get it done.”

If Gilgeous-Alexander was running on empty, he was hiding it well. 

For much of Monday night, he carved his way through the Minnesota defense the way he seems to slice through most everyone’s. He finished with 37 points 10-of-18 shooting; he hit 2 of 3 3-pointers and 15 of 16 free throws. 

The Thunder outscored the Wolves by five in Gilgeous-Alexander’s 39 minutes — his season high in a regulation game —  and was outscored by 11 in the nine minutes he sat. 

The rest of the roster mostly looked beaten down, either by the recent run of games or the Wolves’ defense or both. 

Minnesota played off Josh Giddey, using Gobert as the primary defender on the OKC guard.  Karl-Anthony Towns played similarly on Lu Dort, with the Wolves — in both man-to-man and zone defenses — giving those Thunder starters clean looks from 3-point range. 

Giddey made his first three 3-point attempts and missed his final four. Dort finished 0 for 7 from the floor, with six of the misses coming from behind the 3-point line. 

That strategy let Gobert focus on protecting the paint, and he controlled it. The Thunder saw some shots altered and opted not even to attempt others. It shot 17 of 34 in the paint and scored 34 points there; it averages 54.5. 

“A lot of it’s Gobert,”  Daigneault said. “There’s a reason why his teams are consistently winning teams and consistently really good defensive teams. He’s got great rim protection back there. He’s very difficult to move around. They do a good job of keeping him in situations where he doesn’t have to move around.”

The Wolves scored 46 points in the paint — under their average of 51.1 — but did much of their fourth-quarter damage from a deeper distance. 

Minnesota was 6 of 10 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter to OKC’s 2 for 7. 

But the Wolves’ most emphatic basket — a soaring dunk off a drive by guard Anthony Edwards — came at the rim and changed the complexion of the game. That slam, with 1:57 to play, but Minnesota in front 101-97, and the Thunder never got closer. 

Edwards finished with a team-high 27 points. 

Gilgeous-Alexander’s jumper with 3:25 to play was the last Thunder basket until a Kenrich Williams dunk with 3.7 seconds to play. In the interim, the Wolves outscored OKC 13-4. 

Ultimately, Daigneault said, the Wolves “made a few more plays than we did,” but he thought there were bigger lessons to learn than the ones in the final minute,

There won’t be another stretch as challenging as January, but there are more grind-it-out games to come, more games with stakes on tired legs. More moments when winning ugly is the only way to avoid a loss. 

“We got to stay aggressive in a game like that,” Daigneault said. “ I did think in the first half and coming out of halftime, we didn’t embrace the imperfection of the game. It’s not going to be easy when it’s two good teams going against each other in a battle like that.”

 

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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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