This 2020-21 season is unique for countless reasons, but a specific one is the number of mini-series of games teams have against the same opponent in short spans.
So far this season the Thunder has played two foes with the pair of matchups falling immediately in after one another on the schedule and another two opponents where games were played less than a week apart. The Thunder has gone 0-4 in its first meetings against the Orlando Magic, New Orleans Pelicans, LA Clippers and Houston Rockets, but 3-1 in the rematches against those opponents. The sole loss, to LA, was by just eight points.
Wednesday wrapped up the mini-series against Houston that started on Monday when the Thunder lost by 30 to the Rockets and gave up 136 points, facts on the stat sheet that left OKC with “a bad taste” in their mouth according to veteran center Al Horford.
Yet, instead of letting those bad feelings fester or getting overly amped for a second crack at Houston on Wednesday, the Thunder kept a clear head and focused on the task at hand. A shorthanded OKC squad turned the tables on Houston in a 104-87 rout, holding the Rockets to their fewest points of the season.
“I give our guys credit for just not getting too emotional after that last game,” said Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “I don’t think we got too low after that one just like we won’t get too high after this one.”
“You have to have a short memory on and off the court,” said forward Darius Bazley. “Taking losses like that and being able to put them behind you, while also taking the necessary lessons from it.”
Now, the Thunder will do it all over again versus the division rival Minnesota Timberwolves. Much like those previous four game pairings, the Thunder is seeing the Timberwolves for the first time this season, hosting Minnesota on Friday and Saturday. Maintaining an even keel off of Wednesday’s blowout victory is just as vital as staying level-headed was in between those Rockets games.
“It’s a reflection of not really emotion, but non-emotion – the opposite,” said Daigneault. “It’s such a skill as a team and as a player in the NBA that’s as competitive league as it is not to get too high or too low.”
“It comes down to being resilient,” said forward Kenrich Williams after the game on the Fox Sports Oklahoma broadcast.
The Timberwolves have missed their headline star, Karl-Anthony Towns, for over two weeks and he’s only played in four games this season. As a result, the Timberwolves are a team trying to find its footing, with mixed results. Its last game against the Spurs is a perfect example. After leading by 16 in the fourth quarter on Wednesday in San Antonio, the Timberwolves gave up a 29-9 run over an eight-minute span to the Spurs in a road loss.
Minnesota is a young team, investing in 2020 number one overall draft pick Anthony Edwards, who made his fourth career start against the Spurs. Edwards is averaging 13.6 points per game so far this season and is accompanied by a variety of playmakers at the guard spot, from D’Angelo Russell to Ricky Rubio. It’ll be up to the Thunder to sit down and guard man-to-man, but also be available to help off the ball and make multiple efforts to contest shots.
Thunder point guard George Hill is out for at least four weeks when he’ll be re-evaluated following thumb surgery and the play statuses for a pair of other Thunder guards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort, are up in the air at this point after both sustained knee injuries over the past two games.
As a result, against a Minnesota team whose defense is rated ahead of its offense at the moment, the Thunder will have to generate offense by committee. Against Houston’s over-playing, pressuring defense, OKC utilized back cuts, quick movement and selfless passing as five players scored in double figures and nine players registered assists.
“One thing that we said you know no matter what throughout the whole course of the game we’re going to do was you know stick together and play together,” said Bazley.
The coverages Minnesota throws at the Thunder and the required offensive counters to that may be different, but the offensive philosophy of balance and positionless basketball remains the same.
“That style is a reflection of our personnel and the versatility of our players and all the different things they can do,” Daigneault said.
Stat to Watch
Minutes for Maledon– With the need for ballhandling, keep an eye on rookie point guard Théo Maledon’s minutes. Over the last four games, all starts, Maledon is averaging nearly 32 minutes per game and is coming off a career-high 36 against Houston. On Wednesday he registered six steals, tying a Thunder rookie record. Last week against Phoenix and Brooklyn Maledon showed off his offensive repertoire by helping seal the win with a driving layup in Phoenix and racking up a career-best 24 points against the Nets.
Against the Rockets, however, he played gritty defense and even swallowed up a drive by two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo by ripping the ball straight out of his hands.
“The play he made at the rim where he went vertical and he basically stole the ball, that’s unbelievable progress for a guard to go make a play like that at the rim,” Daigneault said. “It’s just a testament to his toughness.”
“It was just something that I try to put in my identity and put as the identity of the team – to not shy away from the moment of truth and be present for the other teammates,” said Maledon.
Kenny Hustle– No matter how many minutes he gets, what portion of the game they come in or who he’s matched up against, Kenrich Williams is giving the Thunder the same level of tenacity, relentlessness and force. On Wednesday against Houston, Williams combined his quick feet and length on defense with some shooting prowess, driving attacks and slick backdoor cuts. Diving through the lane, Williams at times scored immediately off the catch but also recognized when to keep the ball moving through the middle of the floor and back to the weak side.
“I kind of just read the whoever has the ball,” Williams said. “Guys on the team, they know me well now. They know how I play, and so I just give the credit to my teammates for finding me on those cuts.”
For the game, Williams finished with a season-high 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including a 3-of-3 mark from the 3-point line. Against Minnesota’s backcourt, be on the lookout for “Kenny Hustle” to be all over the floor once again.
“That’s just something he brings to the team every single day,” said Daigneault.