Rookies no more: How Chet Holmgren and Cason Wallace saved OKC in Game 1

Rookies no more: How Chet Holmgren and Cason Wallace saved OKC in Game 1

The basketball wasn’t pretty, but the Thunder got an all-important Game 1 victory over New Orleans courtesy of defense from rookies.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 22, 2024, 6:38am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 22, 2024, 6:38am CDT

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OKLAHOMA CITY — With 10 seconds left in the game, Cason Wallace switched onto C.J. McCollum, and the Pelicans star sized up the Thunder rookie.

Five feet outside the 3-point line, McCollum kept switching hands for his dribble, as if he couldn’t make up his mind on how to attack. Maybe the 20-year-old Wallace’s penchant for defense found its way to the New Orleans scouting report.

Finally, McCollum made a move, but Wallace poked the ball away, forcing McCollum to go into full-throttle desperation. He retrieved it, drove quickly, faked a shot that drew a Wallace leap, then stepped through and fired a 3-point shot that could have sunk the Thunder.

Oh, yeah. Now we remember. This is what playoff basketball looks like.

Shots that bounce off the rim. Physical play that does not result in many fouls. More turnovers than 3-point baskets. 

Five years to the day since the Thunder’s last home playoff game, Paycom Center roared again Sunday night with all the trappings of the postseason. A t-shirt in every seat. A late night start. A roaring crowd. A game not so much won, as lost.

The Thunder beat the Pelicans 94-92 in Game 1 of their Western Conference quarterfinals, and the stars of the game did their work without the ball in their hands.

Oh, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was his usual clutch self. Santa Clara Williams hits some big shots. Chet Holmgren scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.

But the Thunder won this game with defense. Luguentz Dort’s typical maniacal work on Brandon Ingram,  who had a five-inch height advantage but made just five of 22 shots vs. OKC. Holmgren’s majestic block of Larry Nance Junior’s rainbow floater with a minute to go in a tie game. And Wallace’s already trustworthy aptitude to stay in front of NBA wizards intent on breaking down defenses.

McCollum’s step-through 3-point shot bounced off the back rim, and about 15 minutes later, Holmgren barged into the interview room and interrupted my chat with Wallace.

“This is my rook right here,” Holmgren said of Wallace.

Only one problem with that theory. Neither Holmgren nor Wallace are rookies anymore.

“They’ve played so many minutes, so many big moments, once you get past 82 games, I don’t think you’re a rookie anymore,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “They proved that tonight.”

Holmgren and Wallace were the only Thunders to play in all 82 games. Holmgren tallied 2,413 minutes, Wallace 1,692. And while nothing truly prepares young players for the playoffs — the entire Thunder roster seemed shell-shocked offensively — all those games and experiences in November and January and March paid off. Wallace and Holmgren were ready for this stage.

Only three times all season had the Thunder failed to score 100 points; two of those games came in the first 16 days. But OKC produced just 94 points vs. New Orleans and needed virtually all of them.

The Thunder endured seven straight scoreless possessions early in the first quarter. Then the Thunder went empty for 10 straight possessions after taking an 88-83 lead with 6:03 left.

“That’s playoff basketball,” Williams said, with a little bit of irony, considering he was making his playoff debut. “You gotta get it out of the mud … not every game’s going to be pretty. That’s just the playoffs. We kind of look at a lot of these games going on right now, there’s a lot of ugly possession. Just gritty, grind-it-out games, and that’s kind of what it’s going to be.”

Turns out that’s OK with the Thunder, which finished fourth in defensive rating among the 30 NBA teams. When Wallace spells Josh Giddey and plays with the rest of the starters, the Thunder lineup has no weak defenders. Which the Pelicans discovered.

Holmgren made one of two foul shots with 14 seconds left to give the Thunder a two-point lead, and OKC had the toughest of defensive assignments, in relationship to the score: don’t let the Pelicans get off a 3-point shot that could end the game, but also don’t let New Orleans have an easy 2-pointer.

“We wanted to switch” on all pick-and-rolls, Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Not give up any 3’s. Make them drive into Chet.”

New Orleans would have wanted no part of taking on Holmgren. He was a couple of possessions removed from perhaps the signature blocked shot of his rookie season: a meet-at-the-crest rejection of Nance’s rainbow shot. Holmgren’s hand seemed to be a dozen feet above the ground when he blocked the shot, and like usual, Holmgren kept the ball inbounds.

“I think it was clean,” Holmgren said of not goaltending. “But again, I’m not sure. And it’s only goaltending if they call it.”

So the Pelicans weren’t likely to take their chances with Holmgren. Instead, they took their chances with Wallace with the game on the line. McCollum’s pump fake got Wallace to leap, creating an opening, but step-through 3-pointers are not a high-quality shot. 

Daigneault said his strategy was more simple.

“Get the defenders on the court and let ‘em do their thing,” Daigneault said. “A two-point game, you just want to guard ‘em. Don’t want to give ‘em an easy one. I thought Cason executed pretty well there. He was awesome. He stood in there, two-point game, we didn’t want to go double in that situation and give up a 3. A lot of pressure. Obviously, took them out of what they were doing … I thought we were competitive all night defensively, including that one.”

Wallace, drafted 10th overall, out of Kentucky, has become a sub for Dort when foul trouble occurs or rest is needed. Wallace also is a good sidekick with Dort, especially playing with the long-armed SGA and Santa Clara, and the 7-foot-1 Holmgren.

“You gotta expose yourself to all the experiences, learn from them,” Daigneault said. “No one’s more humble in terms of coming to work every day than he is. So his growth curve has been steep as a result of that. We obviously trust him in any situation. He was playing down the stretch of a really close playoff game tonight. He did a great job.”

Sunday night, Daigneault kept rotating sharpshooter Isaiah Joe and Wallace, for offense or defense, though Wallace has been quite the steady shooter himself as a rookie.

That kind of trust was seen throughout the season, too, allowing Wallace’s confidence to soar. So when Daigneault displayed more of that trust in the final minute of a huge game, Wallace was ready.

“It was huge,” Wallace said. “That kind of motivated me before I went in. Coach believing in you, teammates believing in you to go out there and get the last stop.

“It was good. I’ve been guarding some of the best guys in the league all year. C.J. and all the other great players on their team as well. The stakes were just a little bit higher, but it’s the same game.”

And now the Thunder has a 1-0 series lead. Game 1 was there for the taking. New Orleans could have increased all the doubts about the Thunder’s youth and inexperience. Instead, the Thunder won while playing quite poorly on offense. Seems unlikely OKC will be held to 94 points again in this best-of-seven series.

This was a game in which both teams missed open shots, but the Thunder misses were by statistically better shooters. That’s ominous moving forward for the Pelicans.

Nope, New Orleans’ best shot was Game 1, and now the eighth-seeded Pelicans have an even steeper climb, as the playoffs returned to Oklahoma City.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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