Afternoon swoon: Thunder continues early-tipoff struggles in blowout loss to Mavericks

Afternoon swoon: Thunder continues early-tipoff struggles in blowout loss to Mavericks

What is it with the Thunder in the afternoon? OKC on Saturday remained winless in early tipoffs, sleepwalking through a 146-111 loss at Dallas.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 11, 2024, 7:31am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 11, 2024, 7:31am CST

DALLAS — Maybe there’s nothing to this. 

There’s every chance that the Thunder’s 146-111 loss to the Mavericks on Saturday at the American Airlines Center was entirely a product of Luka Doncic’s dominance and Dallas’ downhill drives and an Oklahoma City defense that didn’t have its usual juice. 

It might not have had anything to do with the 2 p.m. start. There might be nothing to the idea of the Thunder’s afternoon swoon. 

Chet Holmgren didn’t want to think so. 

 

 

“I don’t know, man,” Holmgren said when asked if there’s anything to the idea that OKC plays poorly in early tip-offs. ” I don’t want to dive too deep into that wormhole on that one. I just think whatever time we play at, we have to be ready from the jump, come out to win the game.”

And then Holmgren turned to Matt Tumbleson, the Thunder’s director of basketball communications, and asked how many afternoon games the team had played this season. 

Three, he was told: at home against Denver and on the road against Detroit and Dallas.

Turning back to the reporters in the room Holmgren said, “I can see why you think that.”

So far this season, the Thunder is outscoring opponents by 6.9 points per game. But in those three games that tipped at 2 p.m. or earlier, OKC’s been outscored by a staggering average of 28 points per game. 

Thunder opponents in those earliest starts are shooting 55.8%, 10.6 percentage points better than OKC opponents shoot for the season. 

That “might be” coincidence, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. 

“It’s afternoon games for the opponent too,” he said. “When the ball goes up in the air, we got to be ready to play. So we certainly haven’t played well in those games, but I’m not sure if it’s correlated to the time of the game.”

Whether or not it’s happenstance, it keeps happening. 

And it’s potentially notable, given that the Thunder is back home Sunday for another 2 p.m. tipoff, this one against a Kings team that’s beaten OKC twice this season in Sacramento. 

Maybe that one will turn out better than the Thunder’s other matinees 

It can’t be much worse. 

The Thunder’s loss to the Nuggets came early in the year, and the Thunder has since gone 2-1 against Denver. You could write off that 128-95 rout as the sort of thing that can happen to a developing team on Oct. 29. 

The Jan. 28 road loss to the Pistons? Harder to explain. At the time, it was the 26th game Detroit had played this season against a team with a winning record and the first one it had won. And the Pistons cruised, winning 120-104. 

But if the tipoff time was an issue against the Mavs on Saturday, it was just one on a long list. 

The Thunder’s point-of-attack defense — a strength for most of the season — was essentially absent. Doncic seemed to get where he wanted to go with ease, and the Mavericks’ lob threats — particularly new addition Daniel Gafford — made him even harder to guard. 

Shade toward the big and Doncic would shoot the floater. Come to help on Doncic and he’d toss the lob up to a big who’d throw it down. Doncic finished with 32 points and nine assists. 

It didn’t help that early in the game while the Thunder looked sluggish, the Mavs couldn’t miss a 3-point shot. They hit their first five and finished the first quarter 5 of 7 from long range. 

Mostly, though, Dallas destroyed OKC in the paint — the Thunder’s own turf. 

The Mavericks scored 66 points in the paint, OKC 34. 

It marked the second straight game an opponent successfully packed the paint and dared the Thunder to shoot from outside — Utah did it Tuesday — and though OKC finished with more 3-pointers Saturday than the Mavs (17 to 15), starters Josh Giddey and Lu Dort combined to go 4 for 15 behind the arc. 

The Thunder averages 53.1 paint points per game — seventh in the NBA — and so “a lot of teams sell out and try to take that away,” Daigneult said. 

Dallas did. 

At times when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drove, there were three Dallas players clogging the paint. That slowed his production — he finished with 25 points, but never looked in rhythm — but it left no shortage of open shooters. 

But their shots didn’t drop. 

During one third-quarter stretch, six of nine Thunder possessions ended with a 3-point attempt by either Dort or Giddey, and only one of those went in. 

There are ways to combat that defensive strategy, Daigneault said, including off-ball cuts and using Giddey to set screens. And though Daigneault didn’t point it out postagme, the trade-deadline addition of forward Gordon Hayward gives the Thunder another sharp shooter who can play in a variety of lineups.

But Hayward is recovering from a calf injury and won’t play until after the All-Star break. And nothing much worked against the Mavs. 

Even OKC’s reliable transition offense fizzled. 

The Mavericks outscored the Thunder 33-2 in fast-break points, in large part because Dallas was running off missed shots and OKC shot 38.8% from the floor. 

The Thunder — which averages 14.9 fast-break points per game — couldn’t get stops to start its break. 

“If we’re playing against transition on defense all game long and we’re playing against a set defense on the other side, it’s going to be really tough,” Holmgren said. “So we got to kind of flip that and start our offense with our defense.”

The Thunder has had games this season when it seemed helplessly behind only to rally and win. It did so just last Sunday, at home against Toronto. 

On Saturday, the adjustment never clicked. The run never came. 

“When you don’t have juice against a team… as talented as them, it doesn’t matter what you try to do,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It’s not going to work, and we saw that tonight.”

So, about that missing juice. 

Gilgeous-Alexander would like to believe — especially given that the Thunder has a 2 p.m. start Sunday at home against the Kings — that it’s not tied to tip-off time. 

“I try to tell myself no, but it’s hard to deny the facts,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “(Sunday) we’re definitely gonna try to make it a sense of urgency to kind of start the game the way we want to. But yeah, we’ve had three (early) games and all three of them we lost by double digits. It’s the facts. We got to try to hit it on the nose.”

Thunder rounds out roster

After converting two-way guard Lindy Waters III to a full NBA contract Friday, the Thunder on Saturday filled its final open roster spot. 

OKC signed center Bismack Biymobo, adding a physical center who’s unlikely to play significant minutes but gives the Thunder situational size and rebounding. 

The 6-foot-8, 255-pound Biyombo appeared in 30 games this season with Memphis, which waived him last month. In 829 career games, the 31-year-old has averaged 5.1 points and six rebounds in 19.7 minutes per game. 

The Thunder also will convert Adam Flagler to a two-way player, ESPN reported Saturday. He’ll fill Waters’ two-way spot, allowing him to split time between the Thunder and its G League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. 

Flagler, who played college basketball at Baylor, is averaging 12.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the Blue. 

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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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