The Thunder registered assists on 29 of its 37 made baskets and hit 16 3-pointers, but a late third quarter rally from Charlotte put enough distance between the Hornets and Thunder to cause an OKC loss.
After three consecutive underperformances, all of which were determined by skewed first quarters, the Thunder was determined to take a positive step forward through the middle of this four-game home standings. That goal was achieved when the Thunder played an extraordinarily competitive first half against the Charlotte Hornets, holding this game within two possessions from 3:30 pm of the first quarter to 5:30 pm of the third period.
Defensively, the Thunder was more locked in and together, even while mixing newcomers like Jaylen Hoard and Justin Robinson for longer minutes. Offensively, the ball hit the perimeter and found the open teammate as the Thunder got 15 assists on his 18-made baskets in the first half.
We were really aggressive, said head coach Mark Daigneault. We hit the paint with the ball. We kept it moving. We really tried to share it.
The attack flowed mainly through the hands of the Thunders, two 19-year-old rookies, Alexei Pokuevski and Tho Maledon, who both scored 25 points on the evening. They are the only pair of Thunder’s rookie teammates to score 20 or more points in the same game, and they did so for the 2nd time this season. Pokuevski lit it from behind the 3-point line, making his first four shots from deep towards 7 total makes in the game, which is the most by any rookie in OKC history and the most equal to any NBA rookie season.
The 7-footer coolly let himself jump with patience over opponents’ non-bothering outstretched arms, but also stuck his nose into plays by challenging Charlotte drivers on the brink, beating a full-court press by going all the way to 94 foot to dribble. rim and some physical rebounds as he finished with 9 boards and 4 assists.
The work pays off. We just have to keep working because we’re playing well, which is good, but we have to keep practicing and playing strong, ”said Pokuevski.
Maledon, meanwhile, attacked in several ways, hitting all the way to the edge on some drives, knocking down a trio of 3-pointers and then calmly hitting mid-range jumpers as the Hornets tried to run him off the arch.
We were really optimistic about those guys and a lot of the guys we have, Daigneault said. They played great tonight because they have improved and they have improved because of the approach they have taken.
The Thunder cut the Hornets’ lead to just three points at 80-77 just before the end of the third quarter, but Charlotte got a few buckets from his backcourt, a Terry Rozier stutter step bucket and a Devonte Graham 3- pointer to lead back to eight for the quarter break. That run continued in the fourth frame, when the Thunder flipped the ball three times, while Charlotte got a quick 7-0 sprint to make the run a full 12-0 burst. That created insurmountable separation between the teams during the last 10 minutes of regulation.
The game was played several times tonight, with both Pokuevski and Kenrich Williams using the same technique to shake off an aggressive defender. When Pokuevski emerged from the locker room with some extra perspective, he dribbled to a teammate from the top, but felt the two Charlotte defenders lean into a switch to try and stop OKC’s dribble-hand-off action. Pokuevski dumbled off the hand-off and swerved to the track at the last second to surprise his defenders. The result was an easy finish on the edge with his right hand on the left side of the ring.
A few minutes later, Williams used the same tactic that eventually landed his game in a jump ball after an erroneous call was revised and destroyed, but the result was less important than the correct use of the fake out. Using an urgent, aggressive defense against oneself is one way to win the small battles in the game.
It’s just kind of a counterbalance to switching, Daigneault said. That’s just one of the little tricks you can use against a changing team. Those guys recognized it well.
Number of both rebounds for Kenrich Williams in the game, in addition to nine assists in the versatile forward’s career. Despite only shooting 2-for-12, Williams found other ways to influence play, as he usually does. Williams crashed the glass to create additional assets for his team or end Charlottes’ hopes for a second chance, while also attacking and finding teammates in the Dunker spot or scattered behind the 3-point line.
– OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 8, 2021
“It was an approach and a will to be really competitive. It was something that we saw in practice and that is something that we tried to bring to the ground. Really stick together and be competitive and even when mistakes happen , make sure we have each other’s backs in defense or make the extra pass for the other player to get a better shot. So that’s what it was really about and it’s something that we have to transfer for the future and the next game . ”
We got back on track competitively. We really fought for 48 minutes. We really got together and played together and tried to solve problems together. They were the better team. They outdid us a bit, but we really fought and fought tonight.
“They were the better team … but we really fought and fought tonight. I was very happy with it.”
– Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 8, 2021
After taking a big step forward against Charlotte, the Thunder will be back in action to continue its home standings against Eastern Conference foes by lining up back-to-back on the second night against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
– Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 8, 2021
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