Chet Holmgren lifts the Thunder to statistically significant win in Houston

Chet Holmgren lifts the Thunder to statistically significant win in Houston

Holmgren had one of his best nights of the season and the Thunder reached 40 wins before 20 losses, a number that matters in the NBA.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 26, 2024, 12:36am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 26, 2024, 12:36am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mark Daigneault is “not a big halftime speech guy.”

The Thunder coach said so Sunday, telling reporters in Houston that as his team stumbled early against the Rockets, the goal was to make corrections on the fly. Daigneault didn’t want to wait until he got to the locker room. 

It turns out the Thunder didn’t need its coach to go rah-rah to rock the Rockets. 

All it took was tighter defense, another big night from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a monster performance from Chet Holmgren for OKC to hammer Houston in the second half and win 123-110. 

After trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half and allowing 62 points by halftime, the Thunder held Houston to 48 points in the second.

“We were trying to point out in the game how physical Houston was and that we had to amp it up if we wanted to come out of here with a win —  or even have a chance — at a certain point in the second quarter,” Daigneault said. 

The Thunder received the message, and in the process won its 40th game, a numerically with dual significance. 

That and more takeaways from the win: 

Game-changing Chet

Holmgren was a major part of the second-half spark, scoring 19 of the Thunder’s 36 points in the fourth quarter. That was the highest-scoring fourth quarter ever by an OKC rookie. 

“I just felt like J-Dub out there,” Holmgren told the Thunder’s Nick Gallo in a sideline interview after the game. “Just channeling my inner J-Dub.”

That was a reference to teammate Jalen Williams, who ranks ninth in the NBA with 334 fourth-quarter points. 

But Holmgren did more than score Sunday. 

The rookie finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots. According to the Thunder, he’s the second OKC player ever — joining Kevin Durant — to post a stat line with those numbers in those categories. 

And Holmgren matched his career high with five 3-pointers, and the fifth was his 100th of the season. That made him the first rookie in NBA history to record at least 100 made 3s and 100 blocked shots (he has 151). 

Spurs rookie Victor Wembanyama — 166 blocks and 81 3-pointers — is likely to join him on that list.

The record-setting night is part of a recent trend for Holmgren, who in three games since the All-Star break is averaging 23.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.7 blocks, shooting 66.7% from the floor and 52.5% from 3-point range. 

In a postgame news conference in Houston, Holmgren chalked up his growth to “always wanting more.” 

“Whether it’s more knowledge or more ability, whatever it might be, just continue to want more,” Holmgren said. “No matter where I’m at, I can always do better and do more for this team. So just always trying to figure that out.”

He got a lot more against the Rockets than the first time he played them. 

In OKC’s Dec. 6 loss at Houston, Holmgren finished with four points, five rebounds and six blocks, shooting 2 for 9 from the floor and missing all four of his 3-point shots. 

He looked like a different player on Sunday. But more like the one he’s been this season. 

“He’s a basketball player at the end of the day,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 36 points and was the recipient of four Holmgren assists Sunday. “He can pass, shoot, dribble even at size. Obviously, he’s really skilled for his position, and it all blossomed tonight, but that’s who Chet is and that’s who he’s been.”

The 40/20 club

The Thunder’s 40th win was significant on two levels. 

For starters, it improved OKC to 40-17, meaning the team hit 40 wins before its 20th loss. It turns out that matters if you want to contend for an NBA championship. 

Former Lakers and Bulls coach Phil Jackson is credited with popularizing the concept of “40 before 20” as a barometer for title contention, but the trend predates him. 

Just since the year 2000, 21 of the 24 teams to win NBA titles got to 40 wins before 20 losses, including two — the 2020 Lakers and 2012 Heat — who did it in shortened seasons. 

Dating back to 1979-80 — the season Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA and revolutionized the league — only four title winners have failed to hit the 40-before-20 benchmark in 82-game seasons.

Forty before 20 is no guarantee of a championship. Teams routinely hit the mark but fail to cut down the nets, including the Thunder, which did it in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016 without winning rings. But it’s a good indicator of a title-contending resume. 

The Thunder’s 40th win this season, though, carries extra significance: It matches OKC’s win total last season when it finished 40-42.  

That’s a substantial and potentially surprising leap. At least from the outside. 

“If I wasn’t with these guys every day, I would be surprised,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But seeing these guys work, seeing their mentality, seeing their goals, seeing them day to day, it makes sense. We’re a super-focused group. Above all, we care about winning, and we work super hard, and when you prioritize those things, good things happen to you.”

Defensive difference 

With five minutes to play in the second quarter, the Rockets led 56-40. 

Houston had shoved the Thunder around. It had shot the lights out from the 3-point line. It had gotten great looks and made 20 of 37 from the floor. 

“That first quarter and a half, they were the more physical team,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They were the aggressors on both ends of the floor. And those are things that we try to hang our hat on and are big in our identity. When we got to it, we saw the game turn.”

The Rockets figured it was coming. 

The Thunder has been “one of the best teams in the league all year,” Rockets guard Fred VanVleet said. He knew OKC would make adjustments. He couldn’t have know how those would pay off. 

Over the final five minutes of the second quarter, the Rockets went 2 for 10, and the Thunder whittled the lead to 62-57 by halftime. 

OKC outscored the Rockets 66-48 in the second half. Houston shot 34.8% after halftime. Houston made 12 shots in the first quarter and 16 in the second half. 

The result was OKC’s 12th win this season after trailing by double digits. That’s the most in the NBA. 

“The physicality we really amped up midway through the second quarter,” Daigneault said. “That was that was the game right there and got us back into it. And then (we) really kept that going. We were we were dogs in the second half.”

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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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