The Thunder’s solution to Toronto’s defensive riddle could pay dividends

The Thunder’s solution to Toronto’s defensive riddle could pay dividends

It took the better part of three quarters for the Thunder’s offense to counter a blitzing Raptors defense Sunday night. A double-overtime win might have been just the kind of on-the-fly experience OKC needs.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 5, 2024, 5:59am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 5, 2024, 5:59am CST

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Sometimes it’s a simple 2-3 zone. 

And if that’s not enough to befuddle the Thunder’s offense, to get it out of the rhythm where it so often lives, an opponent might try something more drastic. 

The Raptors went the latter route Sunday at Paycom Center. 

They blitzed OKC star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and threw two — and sometimes more — defenders in his way. Toronto practically begged the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer to give up the ball and force somebody else to make shots. 

It almost worked. 

But the Thunder this season has proven deft at deciphering defenses if given a little time.

On Sunday, two overtimes did the trick. 

Toronto held Gilgeous-Alexander to 23 points, but his career-high 14 assists helped key a comeback from 23 points down and a 135-127 double-overtime win. 

“I think at the end of the day, if you play together and play the right way, no matter what coverage it is, you’ll figure it out,” Gilgeous-Alexander said when it was over. “We have a group of guys that does that almost every possession so it makes it easier.” 

For most of Sunday night, nothing much was easy. 

The Thunder was out of sorts at both ends of the court, its defense inadequate at the point of attack, allowing Toronto clear paths to the rim, and its offense stalled by a Raptors wrinkle. 

Traps are nothing new for Gilgeous-Alexander. Over the years, he’s seen most everything a defense can throw his way. 

But Toronto gave him something new, trapping him higher up the floor than defenses typically do. 

It was a risky gambit — Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates had space to operate and were open for jump shots — made somewhat less so by the absence of OKC wing Jalen Williams. 

The Thunder’s second-leading scorer, who missed his second straight game with a right ankle sprain, is a safety valve, an expert operator in open space who Gilgeous-Alexander can hit when he’s blitzed.

Toronto went for it, and for the better part of three quarters the unorthodox look kept OKC out of an offensive flow. 

In the first half, Gilgeous-Alexander held the ball too long. When he gave it up, his teammates were indecisive when passes hit their hands. The Thunder adapted at halftime, but shots still wouldn’t drop to open the third quarter. 

With 6:44 to play in the third, the Raptors led 76-53. 

“I thought it would have been easy to go into a shell at that point when we had to call that first timeout in the third,” guard Josh Giddey said. “But I thought we stuck with it.”

The game turned in a hurry — 6-0 Thunder run ballooned to 14-2 and then 25-9 — but even as OKC found its offense, it couldn’t create any distance. The Raptors hung though. 

And with Toronto’s defense geared to tame Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder needed some new heroes. 

It found them in Giddey, who scored a season-high 24 points and added six rebounds and six assists. And in Chet Holmgren and Lu Dort, who scored 22 points each and combined for 32 after halftime. And in Aaron Wiggins, who made all four of his 3-pointers and scored 18 of his 20 points after halftime.

Giddey found Wiggins with a pinpoint sideline-out-of-bounds pass with 4.7 seconds to play in regulation for the tying layup. 

And the Thunder defense found its footing, too, stopping Toronto on the final possession at the end of regulation and the first overtime — the latter on a Gilgeous-Alexander swat of a Gary Trent Jr. jumper. 

More than anything, though, it was the Thunder’s offensive turnaround that changed the game. 

OKC made 7 of its first 30 3-point attempts, then 16 of its final 33. The 23 makes tied a Thunder franchise record; the 63 attempts were the third-most ever in an NBA game. 

Five Thunder players scored at least 20 points for just the third time in OKC history. 

It mostly came down to simple adjustments, made on the fly, and it started with Gilgeous-Alexander passing earlier out of traps. 

“I was really impressed by his ability to get it out of there and then the rest of the guys’ ability to play on the catch, shoot when they were open, drive and make decisions,” Daigneault said. “And I thought that really opened things up for us.”

On paper the Thunder was supposed to beat the sputtering Raptors — they’ve lost nine of their past 13 — without any sort of offensive overhaul. 

But Toronto’s defense was as inspired as it was unfamiliar. The Raptors were physical without fouling, sending OKC to the free-throw line eight times in 58 minutes of basketball. 

Gilgeous-Alexander, who averages 9.1 free-throw attempts per game, was 3 for 3 at the line Sunday. One of the attempts was for a technical foul. 

That likely contributed to his lack of rhythm. Gilgeous-Alexander ultimately settled in as a playmaker against the Raptors’ defense, but he never seemed himself as a scorer. 

Which was Toronto’s goal. 

“(It’s) a sign of respect from other teams that we have so much talent that they’re trying to play defenses they’ve maybe never played throughout the year,” Giddey said. “Whether that’s putting a big on me, whether that’s blitzing Shai, whatever it is.”

And all the adaptation could pay dividends in higher-stakes settings down the road, in the regular season or beyond. Gilgeous-Alexander noted that he’s “seen a lot over the years,” but defenses always have something new. 

Solving them in the moment could be the difference in winning and losing at playoff time. 

“We’re seeing something different every night, and at the end of the day if you have a good offense and potent players like we do, that’s going to happen,” Daigneault said. “And these games are allowing us to learn these attacks and get comfortable with the discomfort of alternate defenses.” 

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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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