Chet Holmgren, Thunder finish Nuggets to end taxing January

Chet Holmgren, Thunder finish Nuggets to end taxing January

The Thunder has looked lately like a team on its last legs. But it found a second wind Wednesday, beating fatigue and the Nuggets to close out a grueling month.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 1, 2024, 5:56am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 1, 2024, 5:56am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — If the so-called rookie wall exists, Chet Holmgren seemed earlier this week to have hurtled headlong into it. 

The first-year Thunder center looked to be running in mud Sunday at Detroit. He’d appeared uncharacteristically hesitant  Monday against Minnesota. 

And so Wednesday night after his third game of the week — and the last of a laborious January for his team — Holmgren was asked how he feels physically and didn’t mince words. 

“Tired,” he said, then paused before giving a longer answer about how your opponent doesn’t care how much energy you have. 

He sounded worn out. 

But he hadn’t played that way. 

Holmgren had looked like a kid with a second wind, his 18-point, 13-rebound, five-blocked-shot performance helping boost the Thunder past Denver 105-100 at Paycom Center in a shorthanded slugfest of teams fighting for Western Conference playoff positioning. 

“I just thought he showed amazing fortitude tonight mentally,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. 

And Holmgren wasn’t alone. 

The Nuggets were without center Nikola Jokic, the two-time MVP who has a strong case for best basketball player alive. But the Thunder were down high-scoring starter Jalen Williams and reliable reserve Isaiah Joe, playing their final game of one of the toughest months anyone’s seen in the NBA in some time. 

Before the game, Daigneault detailed data the Thunder gathered that indicated no one in the league has had a month as challenging as OKC’s January in at least the past five years. 

That was based on the Thunder’s 17 games, 11 road games and five sets of back-to-back games in the month, along with just five days in Oklahoma City without a game to play.

Though all that, OKC went 11-6. 

“And the mentality of our players to just plow through that and throw their hardest punch every night has been very impressive,” Daigneault said. 

The Thunder (33-15) has taken its share of hits, too, and it absorbed some more against the Nuggets (33-16). 

Still, OKC had the energy to keep fighting. 

Lu Dort did it, shaking off a tough shooting night and sprinting downcourt with 1:48 to play to strip the ball from Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. on a layup attempt that could have cut the Thunder lead to a single point.

Josh Giddey did it, too, on a night when he was 2 for 11 from the floor and 1 for 6 in the paint. His rebound of his miss — and a kick to the perimeter — set up Holmgren for the night’s knockout shot, a 3-pointer that put OKC in front 101-97 with 22.9 seconds to play. 

Even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the unflappable captain of this Thunder ship, had some rough waters to navigate.

He’d been listed as questionable with an illness on the Thunder’s injury reports Tuesday and early Wednesday and wasn’t sure he’d be able to play.

But “after a couple naps, a couple sleeps, I had enough in me to go,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. 

Whatever he had wasn’t enough to stop him from scoring 34 points, his 14th game in the month, eighth in a row and league-leading 36th of the season with 30 or more. 

But the Gilgeous-Alexander greatness and the Holmgren heroics were in no small part the product of so many other contributors leading a hand on tired legs. 

Vasilije Micic, thrown into a larger role with Williams (ankle sprain) and Joe (sternum contusion) sidelined, came off the bench to score a season-high 12 points. Aaron Wiggins matched that total —  his third double-digit scoring game in the past six — on a night when bench scoring was critical. 

Dort had seven rebounds and Giddey nine. Kenrich Williams — who got the nod for Jalen Williams in the first half before Wiggins started the second — got five boards in 17 minutes as OKC outrebounded Denver 53-47. 

“Credit to our dudes that touched the floor tonight,” Holmgren said. “Everybody was all over the place scrapping and rebounding, poking the ball away.” 

Or, as Gilgeous-Alexander put it, “We took it possession by possession, we gave it everything we had those possessions and it was enough tonight.”

And maybe nobody was more emblematic of giving everything he had than Holmgren. 

In losses this week to the Pistons and Timberwolves, he’d averaged 6.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and two blocks, shooting 30% from the floor and 1 for 7 from 3-point range. 

Against Minnesota, Holmgren was hesitant, uncertain of himself behind the 3-point line. He’d shot-faked into drives that went nowhere, passing up clean looks at jump shots for contested opportunities closer to the rim. 

One of the unseen challenges of the rookie’s month, he admitted, is that 17 games in 31 days limited the rest of his time on the court. He could watch film and see what needed to be better, with so many games and so much travel, it was hard to get on the court and make adjustments. 


He did that Tuesday, with a relative January rarity: A day off at home between games. So though the Thunder didn’t hold a practice, he was on the floor working through his issues. 

By Wednesday night, he said, he felt confident in his shot, and went 3 for 4 from 3-point range. It was his first game with at least three made 3-pointers since Jan. 8, when he went 4 for 5 in Washington. 

Early Wednesday night, there were no signs that was coming. 

He didn’t start like a guy who would make the night’s signature shot and looked to be “in the same rut” he was against the Wolves, Daigneault said. 

Holmgren didn’t score in the first quarter Wednesday as the Nuggets led by as many as 13 points. He had five points at halftime before erupting for 13 in the second half. 

Daigneault called it “really impressive” for a rookie with Holmgren’s individual ambitions to “lean on the team” in working through a slump. 

That he did it at the end of such a demanding month seemed meaningful too. 

Holmgren said January was less about learning something new than experiencing it. He’d been told “January’s gonna suck,” he said. He went through it and it did and he came out on the other side with new experiences to learn from. 

And continued learning is critical. 

For all the talk of wrapping up that big, bad January, the Thunder has to wait for a break. 

OKC has three days between games next Tuesday and Saturday but first plays home games Friday against the Hornets and Sunday against the Raptors. And Daigneault said he’d be “surprised” if Williams and Joe played “the next couple games.” 

Still, Daigneault said the Thunder never used January as an excuse, and he expects his tired team to keep grinding. 

“They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “I always assume they’re gonna bring the juice, and I’m surprised when we don’t. I wasn’t worried at all (against Denver) because of the way they do it, but it doesn’t make me any less impressed.”

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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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