Upstart Thunder takes veteran Clippers’ ‘best punch’ in 128-117 loss

Upstart Thunder takes veteran Clippers’ ‘best punch’ in 128-117 loss

In a game the Clippers mostly controlled, the Thunder took a late lead and forced a massive L.A. run to seal a win. And maybe OKC can learn something from absorbing the hits it did to hang around.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 17, 2024, 7:54am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 17, 2024, 7:54am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Clippers had reason to celebrate, and Thunder coach Mark Daigneault got a chance to listen. 

After the Clips beat his team 128-117 on Tuesday at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, Daigneault told reporters, his postgame path traveled down the hallway outside the L.A. locker room. 

And what Daigneault heard, he said, was “a genuine excitement.”

It had taken the Clippers’ best effort to win against a young Thunder team playing the second night of a back-to-back, and L.A. had given it. 

The Clips controlled most of the game but had to reclaim it after a late push put the Thunder in front 115-114 with 3:37 to play. 

Paul George and the Clippers took over from there, outscoring OKC 14-2 to close the game. But even as the veteran Clippers shut down his upstart Thunder, Daigneault saw an opportunity for growth. 

“I think that’s their best punch,” Daigneault said, and it took until the final minutes to put the Thunder on the canvas. 

It had taken a similarly significant effort for the Lakers to upset the Thunder the night before in the same building. 

“Which is exciting to know that we’re taking really tough punches from really good teams right now,” Daigneault said. “That’s how you get better and it’s how you get an accurate assessment of where you are, and so these ones sting. Obviously we would have liked to win the game tonight (and) last night but they’re also very informative games for us.”

Three takeaways from an instructive Thunder loss:

SGA in L.A.: OK

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t bad on the Thunder’s winless trip to Los Angeles, but he wasn’t up to his seasonlong standard, and that played a part in the 0-2 start to OKC’s four-game road trip. 

The Clippers held Gilgeous-Alexander to 19 points on 6-of-16 shooting. That came after a 24-point night against the Lakers in which he scored 24 and made 9 of 19 shots. 

It’s the first time in a remarkably consistent season that Gilgeous-Alexander has scored fewer than 25 points in consecutive games. 

The Clippers at nearly full strength — they are without starting center Ivica Zubac for at least four weeks with a calf strain — are built to give Gilgeous-Alexander problems. 

The point of trading SGA to the Thunder back in 2019 was for the Clippers to pair George and Kawhi Leonard for perhaps the NBA’s most dynamic defensive duo. 

They are long and active, and each had turns on Gilgeous-Alexander on Tuesday. Leonard had a spectacular block on a Gilgeous-Alexander drive. George stripped the ball from Gilgeous-Alexander and took it the length of the court to ice the game with a dunk. 

“We know Shai is a hell of a player and we wanted to try and get the ball out of his hands as best as we could,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said. “We missed about seven or eight opportunities where we didn’t do it right. He scored, got to the free-throw line. But overall, I thought we did a good job trying to keep the ball out of his hands, trying to blitz him, trying to show him different coverage just to keep him off balance.” 

Gilgeous-Alexander said the Clippers were “physical and disciplined at the same time,” and did “a good job” defensively. 

“I feel like I got to where I wanted to get to tonight,” he said. “Didn’t make as many shots as I’d like, but that’s how it goes.”

It wasn’t clear if or how much Gilgeous-Alexander was impacted in Los Angeles by a sprained right knee. He played in both halves of OKC’s back-to-back but was listed as questionable leading up to Monday’s Lakers game. 

There was no postgame update on his physical status as OKC heads to Utah for a Thursday game against the Jazz, but Daigneault wasn’t concerned about any lingering effects from a pair of rough nights in L.A. 

Daigneault said his “favorite part about” Gilgeous-Alexander is “how he handles the ups and downs of an NBA season. 

“When we’re going good, he’s the same guy,” Daigneault said. “We lost a couple here in L.A., his numbers are not as high as they normally are, he’ll be the same guy tonight and tomorrow. He’s just got a great temperament for the NBA season.” 

PG: Pretty great 

On a night when both teams made better than 50% of their shots and made at least 16 3-pointers, the biggest difference in Tuesday’s game was the way George played down the stretch. 

He scored 18 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter, including 11 in the 14-2 run that put away the game for the Clippers. 

“It started off letting him get comfortable with the game early on,” Thunder guard Isaiah Joe said. “He made some really tough shots; I’m not saying everything was easy. But if we just key in, a little bit more focused from the jump, maybe we slow a guy like that down. Can’t let him get comfortable.” 

On a night when Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren (eight points, five rebounds, five assists, 2-for-10 shooting) struggled, the Clippers got a lift from their veteran stars. 

In addition to George’s 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals, Leonard poured in 16, six and six on 6-for-10 shooting. 

All nine Clippers who played scored at least seven points, and five were in double figures. 

But George did the heavy lifting, and the Clippers needed every bit of it. 

“This was a grind-out game against a really good team,” George said. “They’re tough, but we had to put everything together. I thought we played a great game. But it kind of had a playoff feel with the way the back-and-forth was going, and the elite shotmaking and a lot of great defense on the floor as well.”

Making a name 

With Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren struggling, Jalen Williams picked up the slack in the Thunder’s starting five, scoring a team-high 25 points on 10-for-14 shooting. 

That didn’t prevent a chyron on the TNT broadcast from identifying him as “Jaylin Williams,” his Thunder teammate who didn’t get in Tuesday’s game. 

“TNT, get my name right yo,” Jalen Williams said as he wrapped his postgame news conference. 

The second-year wing is making a name for himself with his recent play. 

Over his past 14 games, Williams is averaging 21.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He’s shooting 63.1% from the floor and 58.7% from 3-point range over that span. All those numbers are up from his season stats. 

“He’s cooking right now,” Daigneault said. “He’s doing a great job of finding a balance between being aggressive and hitting the gas but also maintaining his efficiency and maintaining kind of a spirit of team play. He still makes the right passes, regardless of the circumstances.”

 

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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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