Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 36 points, but in the fourth quarter, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren did the heavy lifting in a 129-120 win Wednesday over the Knicks.
OKLAHOMA CITY — It was another of those shots Chet Holmgren couldn’t possibly get to and block, except that the Thunder center did.
He swooped in as a help defender and swatted the Knicks Julius Randle on a baseline attempt, the ball ricocheting off the backboard and into the hands of OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
He pushed it upcourt and found a trailing Jalen Williams for an open 3-pointer that dropped. It gave the Thunder a 10-point lead with 3:10 to play in what ended up a 129-120 OKC win.
It was a fitting knockout blow, beginning with Holmgren and ending with Williams — the players who carried the heaviest fourth-quarter load — and facilitated by Gilgeous-Alexander, who benefits the most from sharing the lift.
That trio combined to score 34 of the Thunder’s 36 fourth-quarter points; 27 of those came from Williams (17) and Holmgren (10).
“To win big in this league you need multiple options down the stretch,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 36 points against the Knicks. “You need multiple weapons on the basketball court at all times. And we’re forming into that day by day, and that’s our goal — just to be a really good basketball team and to win big in this league. We’re heading the right direction for sure.”
A win on Wednesday seemed a significant step. Not only because Williams (a career-high 36 points) and Holmgren (22) did so much scoring, but because of how they did it.
They combined to score 11 of the Thunder’s first 13 points of the fourth quarter, all with Gilgeous-Alexander taking his customary rest to start the final frame.
Between the start of the quarter and Gilgeous-Alexander’s return at the 7:06 mark, the Thunder extended its lead from four points to nine.
That “takes the pressure off for (Gilgeous-Alexander) to come in immediately and score right away,” Williams said.
And that hasn’t always been a given.
The Thunder (20-9) has been outscored this season by 13 points per 100 possessions when Williams and Holmgren are on the court together without Gilgeous-Alexander, per advanced stat site CleaningTheGlass.com.
The eye test says that’s gotten better of late, and Daigneault said Williams and Holmgren have “done a great job of just kind of communicating through that, building a synergy together and incorporating the other guys.”
“I think the best thing about it was early on not winning those minutes, but it wasn’t because of us being selfish,” Williams said. “It was just us figuring each other out.”
There were late passes, he said. Or miscommunications on rolls to the basket. Holmgren sat out last season with a foot injury, so while he was part of the team, he never shared the court with Williams. They had to learn each other’s preferences — the spots where they’re most comfortable; when and where they want to catch the ball.
To Daigneault’s credit, Holmgren said, the duo had time to tinker.
“Not everything’s gonna be perfect the first time we do it,” Holmgren said. “(Daigneault) does a good job of allowing us room to grow as long as he feels the intentions are right. And obviously, we can’t just lose those minutes every time we go out there. So we understood that we had to get better within it, and I feel like we’re doing that, and we just got to continue to be even better going forward.”
It’ll be hard for Holmgren and Williams to be much better together than they were in Wednesday’s fourth quarter when their 27 combined points were four short of the Knicks’ team total.
Still, they’ve come a long way in a short time.
“Having those minutes together, getting those reps, I think me and him are a lot more efficient,” Williams said. “We’re trusting each other a lot more than we had been earlier in the year.”
And there’s a lot of season left.
The Williams/Holmgren connection wasn’t the only thing that keyed OKC against the Knicks (17-13).
There was the Thunder’s absurd ball control (four turnovers, tying an NBA season-low by any team). There was a first quarter in which OKC outscored New York 38-25, setting a strong tone on the second night of a back-to-back. There were the 18 Knicks turnovers that the Thunder turned into 21 points.
And there was the standard masterclass from Gilgeous-Alexander, who along with those 36 points finished with seven rebounds and eight assists. He has seven or more assists in six of his past eight games.
Continued growth from Williams and Holmgren figures to expand Gilgeous-Alexander’s playmaking prowess. They combined to benefit from half his assists against the Knicks.
But they assisted him, too, lightening his load on a second game in 24 hours. The Williams/Holmgren collective could prove crucial to giving Gilgeous-Alexander breathers, both on the bench and in the clutch.
“It’s nice to have guys that you can go to outside of just Shai all the time,” Daigneault said. “Because number one it gasses him and number two, you become a one-trick pony and the late-game game plan comes down to just guarding one guy. And we don’t want to be that type of team. We want to be a team that’s dynamic and can beat you a lot of different ways. And we’re developing that. It’s not perfect, but certainly we took a step forward.”