Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander find rhythm late, top Timberwolves

Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander find rhythm late, top Timberwolves

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder seemed off Saturday. But behind stingy defense and a vintage fourth quarter from its star, OKC got on track in time to beat the West-leading Wolves, 102-97, in Minneapolis.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 21, 2024, 7:55am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 21, 2024, 7:55am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has it all going, his game is equal parts musical and methodical, a decisive, incisive hybrid of hard work and art. 

But on the nights when he has to slog through it, the Thunder star can be oddly more impressive. 

It’s often true of his team, too. 

It was on Saturday, when for the middle two quarters of a 102-97 win at West-leading Minnesota, not much seemed to be going right for OKC or its star. 

Shots weren’t dropping. Stops weren’t coming. 

The sometimes-symphonic Thunder was out of tune against a Timberwolves team with the NBA’s top-rated defense. 

And then suddenly, Gilgeous-Alexander and his team struck the right cords. 

They outscored the Wolves 28-14 in the fourth quarter, held Minnesota to 3-of-13 shooting, including 0 for 3 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Gilgeous-Alexander — who’d made 6 of 16 shots through the first three quarters — hit 4 of 6 in the final frame, including a step-back 24-foot 3-pointer with 1:14 to play that put his team in front to stay, 96-94. 

It wasn’t the artful way OKC sometimes wins; it lacked SGA’s signature aesthetics. But the Thunder (29-13) won on a night when it shot 39.5% from the floor, and that looked pretty good to coach Mark Daigneault. 

“It feels great when you’re zipping around scoring 130 points,” Daigneault told reporters in Minneapolis. “But you have to be able to execute in games like this, and I thought they brought the best out of us tonight.”

Three takeaways from the end of a four-game Thunder road trip:

SGA strikes back

His body of work this season has put Gilgeous-Alexander squarely in the MVP conversation, and as he conducted a postgame sideline interview with the Thunder’s Nick Gallo on Saturday, teammate Jalen Williams mouthed “M-V-P” over SGA’s shoulder. 

But the road swing the Thunder wrapped Saturday with a 2-2 record had been unkind to his candidacy. 

Gilgeous-Alexander had been good through the first three games, but not up to his seasonlong standard. He’d shot a combined 15 for 35 in losses to the Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles, and though he helped lift the Thunder to a win in Utah, he’d looked out of sorts again for most of Saturday night. 

And then the fourth quarter came, and his lack of rhythm faded and there was the old Gilgeous-Alexander again. 

He scored 11 of his game-high 33 points in that final period. 

It’s not easy to get back whatever’s gone missing on a road trip. There are so many games and so little rest, and in the grind of January “no one’s feeling great” in the NBA, Daigneault said. 

That includes Gilgeous-Alexander, who was questionable for the first game of the road trip with a right knee sprain. The Wolves game “was mind over matter — him included, but it was really everybody,” Daigneault said. 

Before the step-back shot that put OKC in front for good, Gilgeous-Alexander had missed the only 3-pointer he’d taken against Minnesota. He was 1 for 11 from 3-point range on the road trip. 

So what leads a guy shooting like that to take a shot like that?

“I finally felt like I was in a rhythm tonight offensively that last quarter,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I was in the midrange and to the rack for most of the fourth — I think for all the fourth — and I just felt (Jaden) McDaniels sagging off , and I was in rhythm, comfortable. It’s a shot I’ve shot many times. So I just felt it, tried not to overthink it and shot the ball with confidence.” 

Dort said Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammates “all have trust in him” to make big shots. And Gilgeous-Alexander is prepared to take them even if he’s made fewer shots on a road trip than he’s been making all season. 

Gilgeous-Alexander noted Saturday that he had a seven-point game earlier this season. 

“I know success is a rollercoaster,” he said. “It’s not gonna be sunshine and rainbows 24/7.  You’re gonna have ups and downs. I prepare for nights where I’m not making shots like I usually do and I prepare for bad nights. They’re gonna happen. Nobody has a perfect season. Nobody plays their best every night.” 

Lock down, come back 

The Thunder shot under 40% from the floor. It scored 36 points in the paint — 18 below its average — and hit just 18 of 44 shots in the paint. The Wolves outrebounded OKC 50-37, had a 16-2 advantage in second-chance points and outscored the Thunder 42-24 from behind the 3-point line. 

So how in the heck did OKC win?

For starters, it converted 21 Timberwolves turnovers into 28 points. Those turnovers also contributed to OKC’s 15-4 advantage on the fast break. 

“That’s the game,” Wolves center Rudy Gobert told reporters afterward. We created game plan defensively, we did a great job on the ball. I thought we did a great job pretty much, for the most part, not fouling, then the turnovers were pretty tough on us.”

But OKC’s defense didn’t stop with forcing turnovers. And it never really starts there. 

“I thought the turnovers were just defense, our activity,” Daigneault said. “It’s never a goal of ours, to turn people over. It’s a goal of ours to make teams uncomfortable. And I think that might yield turnovers at times.” 

The Wolves (30-12) struggled to find comfort much of the night, but never more than in the fourth quarter. Minnesota committed seven turnovers in the final 12 minutes and did most of its fourth-quarter scoring at the free-throw line, where it went 8 of 13. 

That defensive effort allowed the Thunder to escape in a game it led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter but trailed by as many as 11 in the fourth quarter. 

“I think it really shows how much we put into winning, how much we want to win,” OKC center Chet Holmgren said. “You could say ‘We didn’t shoot it well tonight, so let’s just try again next game,’ but that’s not the type of guys that we have; it’s not the type of team that we are.” 

Dort is OKC’s Ant repellant 

Three of the Wolves’ fourth-quarter free throw misses came with the Thunder leading by three with 3.5 seconds to play. 

With OKC trying to hold on and win, Dort fouled Wolves star Anthony Edwards on a 3-point shot — “my mistake,” Dort said — and Edwards came up empty at the line, misfiring on the first two before missing the third intentionally. 

The Ant-Man, who averages 25.9 points, scored 19 on Saturday. He got 10 field-goal attempts — nine fewer than his average — and made six. 

That was the product of a “five-man defense,” Daigneault said, but it’s also a tribute to Dort, who spent most of his time as the primary defender on Edwards. 

Dort scored 14 points — OKC got 20 from Williams and 15 from Holmgren — but his scoring was secondary, as it so often is. 

Daigneault called Dort “an irritant” and said “I don’t think people like playing against him.” That doesn’t mean he won’t give up big scoring nights; given his typical assignment on the other team’s best scorers, he will and does. 

But while Edwards had his moments, the Thunder made points hard to come by, and that’s the nightly goal for its Dort-led defense. 

“He’s gonna take punches; he’s boxing against the heavyweights of the NBA every night,” Daigneault said. “But he just eats ’em. He eats the punches and he keeps coming, and it’s impressive to watch night after night.” 

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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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