The Thunder registered assists on 29 of its 37 made baskets and hit 16 3-pointers, but a late third quarter rally by Charlotte put enough distance between the Hornets and Thunder to result in an OKC loss.
After three-straight subpar performances, all of which were defined by lopsided first quarters, the Thunder was determined to take a positive step forward during the middle part of this four-game home stand. That goal was achieved as the Thunder played an extremely competitive first half against the Charlotte Hornets, keeping this game within two possessions from the 3:30 mark of the first quarter all the way through the 5:30 mark of the third period.
Defensively the Thunder was more locked in and together, even while mixing in newcomers like Jaylen Hoard and Justin Robinson for extended minutes. Offensively the ball skipped around the perimeter and found the open teammate as the Thunder racked up 15 assists on its 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 offense primarily flowed through the hands of the Thunder’s two 19-year-old rookies, Aleksej Pokuševski and Théo Maledon, both of whom scored 25 points on the night. They are the only pair of Thunder rookie teammates to score 20-or-more points in the same game, and did it for the 2nd time this season. Pokuševski lit it up from behind the 3-point line, making his first four shots from deep on his way to 7 total makes in the game, which is the most by a rookie in OKC history and tied for the most by any NBA rookie this season.
The 7-footer coolly dropped in jumpers with patience over the un-bothersome outstretched arms of opponents, but also stuck his nose into plays by challenging Charlotte drivers at the rim, beating a full-court press by dribbling 94 feet all the way to the rim and snapping up some physical rebounds as he finished with 9 boards and 4 assists as well.
“The work pays off. We just got to keep working because, we’re playing well which is good, but we’ve got to keep practicing well and keep playing strong,” said Pokuševski.
Maledon, meanwhile, attacked in a variety of ways, getting all the way to the rim on some drives, knocking down a trio of 3-pointers and then calmly hitting mid-range jumpers when the Hornets tried to run him off the arc.
“We’re really optimistic about those guys and a lot of the guys that we have,” said Daigneault. “They played great tonight because they’ve improved and they’ve improved because of the approach they’ve 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 pair of buckets from its backcourt – a Terry Rozier stutter-step bucket and a Devonte’ Graham 3-pointer to push its lead back out to eight before the quarter break. That run continued into the fourth frame, as the Thunder turned the ball over three times while Charlotte got a quick 7-0 spurt to make the run a full 12-0 burst. That put some insurmountable separation between the teams over the final 10 minutes of regulation.
Tonight’s play of the game happened multiple times, with both Pokuševski and Kenrich Williams utilizing the same technique to shake off an aggressive defender. Coming out of the halftime locker room with some added perspective, Pokuševski dribbled towards a teammate out top but felt that the two Charlotte defenders were leaning into a switch to try to stop up OKC’s dribble-hand-off action. Pokuševski dummied the hand-off, veering towards the lane at the last second to catch his defenders by surprise. The result was an easy finish at the rim with his right hand on the left side of the hoop.
A few minutes later, Williams used the same tactic – his play ultimately ended up in a jump ball after a foul call was reviewed and overturned, but the result was less important than the proper usage of the fake-out. Leveraging a pressing, aggressive defense against itself is one way to win the small battles within the game.
“It’s just kind of a counter against switching,” said Daigneault. “That’s just one of the little tricks you can use against a switching team. Those guys did a good job of recognizing it.”
Number of both rebounds for Kenrich Williams in the game, in addition to a career-high-tying nine assists for the versatile forward. Despite shooting just 2-for-12, Williams found other ways to impact the game, as he typically does. Williams crashed the glass to help create extra possessions for his team or end Charlotte’s second chance hopes, while also attacking off the bounce and finding teammates at the dunker spot or spread out behind the 3-point line.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 8, 2021
“It was an approach and a will to really be competitive. It was something that we watched in practice and that’s something that we were trying to put on the floor. Really to stick together and being competitive and even though mistakes happen, make sure that we’ve got each other’s backs on the defensive end or making the extra pass for the other player to get a better shot. So it was really about that and it’s something that we need to carry over for the future and the next game.”
“We got back on track competitively. We really competed for 48 minutes. We really pulled together and played together and tried to solve problems together. They were the better team. They out-executed us a little bit, but we really fought and competed tonight.”
“They were the better team… but we really fought and competed tonight. I was really pleased with it.”
— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 8, 2021
After taking a great stride forward against Charlotte, the Thunder will be right back in action to continue its home stand against Eastern Conference foes by lining up against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the second night of a back-to-back.
— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 8, 2021