In both of the Thunder’s first two games, the final result has been decided in the waning seconds of the game clock. First was a win against Charlotte that was sealed with a game-winning jumper by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to start the season. Then on Monday, in the Thunder’s home opener against Utah, a back-and-forth contest once again came down to the final possession to determine a victor. The Jazz ultimately escaped OKC with a 110-109 victory.
For two games now, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault has been able to exercise late-game situations in real time with his young squad. Such experiences, he says, are valuable for this group early in the season.
“I was really pleased with how our team competed. We competed all the way through for 48 minutes, and when you do that against a good team like Utah, it can go either way. Obviously, the other night a shot fell. [This time], we were one basket away, but these are valuable experiences for our players, absolutely,” said Daigneault.
The Thunder must now immediately turn the page to Orlando in the back half of the back-to-back. However, if there’s one thing Coach Daigneault and this Thunder team have made a point of this season, it’s that external circumstances will not dictate their day-to-day approach. In each game, there are lessons to be learned for this team and the Thunder will look to take advantage of the experiences they had on Monday against Utah.
“We’re not going to skip steps in terms of learning from this game. That’s the most important thing, is that we do learn from all these experiences. We’ll get as ready as we can for the game [on Tuesday]. We’re going to definitely digest this,” said Daigneault. “We’re going to look at ways we can execute just a little bit better on both ends of the floor. We competed for 48 minutes. Every guy that entered the game competed. That’s the baseline you have to operate from in a league as competitive as the NBA. We’ve obviously done that the last two nights. We have to continue to do that.”
For the first time in 11 years, Orlando has started their season 3-0. The Magic’s hot start is coupled with an average of 121 points per contest and 4 players averaging 17 or more points per game. Leading the charge is Orlando’s sixth-man in Terrence Ross who has come off the bench for the Magic in its first three games and averaged 23.3 points per game and leads all bench players in scoring.
Not far behind Ross is 6-foot-4 guard Markelle Fultz who has recorded back-to-back games of over 20 points for the first time in his career and is averaging 20.7 per night. Rounding out Orlando’s top four scorers are Evan Fournier (19 ppg) and center Nikola Vučević (17.3 ppg).
It has been a series of strong 4th quarter performances for Orlando that has propelled them to an undefeated start. In its last outing on Sunday, the Magic overcame a 17-point deficit going into the 4th quarter in large part thanks to a 14-2 run by the second unit to cut the game to 3 points.
For the Thunder, containing the red-hot backcourt of Orlando will require the same discipline and effort it employed on Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic. Contest each look and stay clean while doing it.
“Really try not to get screened and really make it to tough,” explained Thunder guard Luguentz Dort. “All their shots have to be contested without fouling.”
The second unit for Orlando, led by Ross, has played a key role in its team’s success over its first two games. The Magic reserves are averaging 47 points per game and have outscored opposing benches in each contest.
The Thunder’s second unit showed similar ability in its first game of the season. Led by veteran center Mike Muscala and third-year guard Hamidou Diallo, it was the Thunder reserves who helped OKC build up its 13-point lead over Charlotte going into the fourth quarter on December 26. Look out for the matchup between the two second units and how they impact the game.
We represent this city and this city represents us so we’re going to go out and lay it out on the line every night and try to make this city proud.@George_Hill3 | #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/PPVSmr6fUJ
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 29, 2020
Stat to Watch
Steals — In its first two games, the Thunder is averaging 9.5 steals per game with six players recording at least one steal in each game. In the third quarter alone on Monday, the Thunder snatched 7 steals from Utah’s offense. Similarly, the Magic are tied for 5th in the league in steals as its averaged 9.7 over its first 3 games.
Taking care of the ball and not being disrupted on the offensive end will be big keys for OKC while also applying the same force defensively to cause as much disruption as possible.
In the Thunder’s last three games at home against Orlando, OKC holds a 3-0 record while putting up 115.3 points on average while shooting at a 40-percent clip. All time, the Thunder hold a 10-2 record at home against the Magic.