Blue Grit: What the latest Thunder comeback says about its resiliency

Blue Grit: What the latest Thunder comeback says about its resiliency

The Thunder’s NBA-season-high 17th victory after trailing by double digits reminded us that this team’s determination belies its age.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 10, 2024, 9:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 10, 2024, 9:00am CDT

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — NBA seasons are long, which explains why the Thunder seems to be playing a little uphill since the all-star break. The Baby Boomers’ story is cool, but they are not the ‘72 Lakers. They’re going to hit some potholes.

NBA games are long, too. First-half troubles don’t have to be second-half fates.

The Sacramento Kings made eight of their first 11 3-point shots and took a 19-point halftime lead Tuesday night in Paycom Center. Keon Ellis banked in a 3-pointer. De’Aaron Fox launched a driving layup off the top of the backboard that fell through the rim. Ellis, who had reached double-digit scoring exactly 11 times in his 69 career NBA games, scored a career high 20 points — in the first half.

Sometimes, that’s enough to make a team forget how long these games go.

But other teams understand NBA math, which Mark Daigneault tries to impart to his Thunder squad.

“We have to understand the nature of an NBA game,” Daigneault said. “It’s a 48-minute game. Going to be a lot of swings. Especially with the way teams shoot the ball.”

Daigneault is a good communicator. He quickly explained “swings.” The sum of each team’s biggest lead. The Kings had a 20-point lead in the second quarter. The Thunder’s biggest lead was seven, late. The average NBA swing is around 22-24. So this game had a 27-point swing. Not too much above average.

“So it’s kind of a normal night when the game swings like that,” Daigneault said. “And we just have to have the emotional maturity to understand that. Hang in there during the lows. And also stay locked in during the highs.”

Emotional maturity. Locked in. Apt descriptions for a Thunder team that starts ballplayers aged 21 (Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey), 22 (Jalen Williams), 24 (Luguentz Dort) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (25) but remains a contender to finish with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

Emotional maturity gets a boost when baskets come quickly. 

Holmgren and Gilgeous-Alexander each swished 3-pointers in the first 48 seconds of the second half, turning the deficit from oppressive to manageable, and the Thunder’s defense held the Kings to 41 second-half points.

The result was a 112-105 Thunder victory that didn’t return OKC’s early-season mojo but reminded us all that this team’s determination belies its age. This was the Thunder’s NBA-season-high 17th victory after trailing by double digits, and the comeback from being 20 down was the second-largest of the OKC season.

Blue Grit, if you will.

“We all know it’s a 48-minute game,” said Dort, the prideful defensive whiz who was burned for some of Fox’s 5-of-8 deep-ball shooting in the first half. “It’s never going to be perfect. We had a bad start. We just had to stick to our game and do what we do to come back in the game.”

The first minute of the second half jettisoned the Thunder. Williams passed out of traffic to an open Gilgeous-Alexander for a left-wing 3-pointer, then Holmgren scored from deep on a fast break. Sacramento’s lead was just 64-51.

“We’ve been in that situation a lot,” SGA said of big early deficits, and he’s even referring to previous seasons. “We know what it takes. I guess that muscle’s kind of trained.

“Nobody wants to go down that big. But it’s a luxury to have guys that understand how to get back, how to play with adversity, and I think we have a group of guys that does.”

That kind of deficit isn’t recommended in the playoffs, but it’s got to be comforting to know it’s not a death sentence.

Daigneault noted Sacramento’s first-half shotmaking but knows that rarely lasts. He also knows that the Thunder didn’t bring the defensive intensity it needed.

“We came out at halftime with a great sense of purpose and really defended in the second half of that game … especially down the stretch,” Daigneault said. “I thought that’s what won us the game.”

With 2:48 left in the game, Ellis hit a wing 3 that gave the Kings a 105-104 lead. Sacramento never scored again. Here are the final five King possessions:

Rookie Cason Wallace, a Dort-in-the-making, switched with Dort when the Kings screened for Fox. Sacramento never found a rhythm and eventually settled for Keegan Murray’s heavily-contested 3-pointer over Santa Clara.

Another Dort/Wallace switch on Fox — credit Daigneault for having Wallace in the game, locking out a fundamental piece of the Sacramento offense — led to a Fox long ball over Wallace. Not a bad look but not wide open, either. Holmgren boxed out Sabonis on the rebound and drew a foul.

A Fox fadeaway 3-point shot was heavily contested by Dort.

A Domantas Sabonis bobble off an Ellis pass. Sabonis should have had it. Sometimes you’re lucky.

Davion Mitchell missed a corner 3, contested by Wallace.

“Wasn’t perfect the whole game,” Holmgren said. “There were times the second half where we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, which they got some good looks from. We were fortunate enough that they didn’t capitalize on those.

“But I felt like we disrupted their rhythm enough, those weren’t as easy looks as they were for ‘em coming out of the gates, and especially coming down the stretch.”

Holmgren’s play was not spectacular but pivotal. He hung with Sabonis, the Thunder alum who has become an all-NBA center out West.

Sabonis had mostly dominated Holmgren in the first three Thunder-Kings games this season, but Sabonis’ streak of doubles-doubles (points, rebounds) ended at 61 Tuesday night. Sabonis had averaged a triple double in those first three matchups against Holmgren, but he was limited to eight points, 13 rebounds and five assists Tuesday. Sabonis made just two of seven shots.

Holmgren’s development is another product of a long season. Daigneault acknowledges that the Thunder hasn’t been as crisp as it was a couple of months ago.

Even before the Eastern road trip and the injuries to SGA and Santa Clara, which left the squad without its two best players for four games, the Thunder had slumped.

A dropoff of about two points per 100 possessions offensively, maybe one point defensively. Not big. But a basket here, a foul there, and a game or two gets switched, and the next thing you know, the Thunder is a game out of the West lead instead of a game ahead.

“I think the important thing there is, in an 82-game season, there’s parts of the year where you’re thriving, you’re kind of in a team rhythm,” Daigneault said.

“Then there’s times you just have to endure, like you’re just not in a rhythm, or you take some injuries, or it’s a tough schedule. It could be a number of factors. You gotta be a tough-minded team that can play through your dips and stay together through your dips and continue to forge an identity through your dips.”

Long season. Endure. And long games. Endure.

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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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