The Thunder fell behind by 32 after just 13 minutes of action against a streaking Suns team that was firing on all cylinders. Despite the massive hole, the Thunder hung in there and even saw its two 19-year-old rookies make nice strides forward.
The Thunder knew that walking into its Friday night matchup against the Western Conference’s second-best squad that it might be an uphill climb. The way Phoenix shot the ball and played defense over the first quarter of play, the Thunder would have needed the mother of all comebacks to get back into the game.
Phoenix ripped off makes on four of its first five shot attempts, then zoomed out to a 22-5 scoring advantage behind a barrage of 3-pointers by Jae Crowder and Devin Booker, along with some midrange mastery by Chris Paul. Meanwhile, the Thunder’s offense started sluggishly with 1-for-7 shooting from the field and a few turnovers.
“Give Phoenix credit,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “They were the more ready team from the jump tonight and we were playing uphill the rest of the night because of that.”
Two of those giveaways came from rookie point guard Théo Maledon, who also started the game 0-for-4 from the field. Undeterred, the French youngster turned up the aggression, started to attack more downhill and that tempo actually help settle down the entire Thunder team. Responding with a 10-1 run in the second quarter, the Thunder worked its way back to actually outscore Phoenix 63-60 over the middle two periods.
The Thunder made an OKC record nine 3-pointers in the second quarter, part of 15 total makes on the night, a third of which came from Maledon. By hitting those 3-pointers on the catch or after coming around screens, Maledon kept the defense honest and opened up attacking angles for himself to get floaters or foul calls.
“It’s something that I watch on film, on how to draw fouls while driving,” Maledon explained. “It’s something that a lot of players do and use it well. It’s something that while the game is going, I try to use it in my game. Going downhill is something that I got more comfortable as the game was going.”
For the night, Maledon scored a career-high 33 points, one shy of an OKC rookie record, on 10-for-18 shooting, 5-for-7 3-point shooting and an 8-for-10 mark at the free throw line.
“I was just staying confident in myself,” Maledon added. “I knew that the shots that I was taking were the shots that I was looking for and the shots that I was working for. I knew at some point they would fall. I just had to keep going.”
“He just looks a lot more comfortable,” added swingman Kenrich Williams, who added 10 points off the bench. “He looked like a veteran point guard these last few games. That’s what I can tell the most about his game, just his maturity on the court.”
The connection between Maledon and fellow 19-year-old rookie Aleksej Pokuševski was on full display in the third quarter, when the point guard fired a pristine cross-court pass from the left corner to the right corner right into Pokuševski’s shooting pocket. With a quick pump fake to shake off a closeout, Pokuševski dribbled into the midrange and banked in a jumper, part of a 20-point, 5-rebound, 4 assist effort on 7-for-14 shooting and 4-of-6 3-point shooting.
That bucket cut Phoenix’s lead to 18 points and while that may not seem like a threatening charge, it was the closest the Thunder got since the 4:38 mark of the first quarter. Phoenix’s response was precisely what veteran NBA teams do – they put the kibosh on OKC’s spurt with a 14-5 run of their own to slam the door. Booker got the scoring going, DeAndre Ayton slammed home a couple of lobs and sharpshooter Cameron Johnson canned a pair of jumpers to put this one out of reach.
Late in the first quarter, despite a daunting deficit, the Thunder kept executing to the best of its ability. Pokuševski caught the ball on the left wing, gave it up to Ty Jerome, then got a return pass over on the right side of the floor. Driving left into the lane to blow by his defender, Pokuševski then delivered a beautifully-timed lefty bounce pass to Tony Bradley, who relocated from the left dunker spot with a subtle cut underneath the rim for an easy basket. It was a simple but effective play to generate two points by just playing flow basketball.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 3, 2021
“Just being aggressive and attacking the paint, then finding a free man,” said Pokuševski. “We have great teammates that are moving well, so it’s easy to find them.”
“A lot of those passes, his size really helps. He’s all of seven feet and he’s able to see over the defense and deliver a lot of those plays,” said Daigneault. “The passing instincts, he kind of came in with in training camp even. When he had advantages and the floor was kind of scrambled, he was always finding the right guy. One of the things he’s really been working on, and that he did well tonight, is hitting the gas and gaining those advantages and creating those advantages with the ball so the floor can open up for him and he can have more of those plays.”
Maledon and Pokuševski became the first rookie NBA teammates under the age of 20 to score 20-or-more points in the same game. Maledon led the charge with his attacking off the bounce and pulling up for three, while Pokuševski darted into the lane on drives and kept moving on the perimeter for spot up looks to keep the scoreboard moving for OKC.
“(Theo) is a great guy to play with. He’s an unselfish guy,” said Pokuševski. He’s playing the right way – finding the open man and scoring. He had a great game for the team and him. He showed that he can play and it’s pretty easy playing with him. You just have to be at the right spot at the right time.”
“These last few games you can kind of tell that those guys are getting way more comfortable on the floor,” Williams said. “The game is starting to slow down for them, and they just look like two promising rookies.”
Career-high 33 points (10-18 FGM) for #ThéoMaledon, he is the second rookie in Thunder history to have a 30+ game.#ThéoMaledon and @aleksejpokusevs are the first pair of teammates in NBA history under the age of 20 to score 20+ in the same game. pic.twitter.com/EyuewatqRW
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 3, 2021
“They’re a good team for a reason. They play well together. Tonight they got off to hot start, they shot the ball really well. A lot of it is on us, but those guys were hitting contested shots, all you can do is continue to play hard and play defense and hope the ball goes your way.”
“They were the readier team to play. It took us a long time in the game to kind of match that and once we did, we ran offense sharper. We cut harder. We made sharper passes. Our timing was better. Then we loosened them up a little bit and played better once we got into the meat of the second quarter, but obviously it took us too long tonight.”
The Thunder will get a chance to bounce back immediately after making a long flight up the west coast to Portland to take on the Trail Blazers on Saturday night.
“It’s a good zero and zero game. Every night is different in the NBA,” said Daigneault. “You have to be ready every night. Every time you wake up in the morning you’re zero and zero. It’s a new opportunity. We’re happy to be turning around and playing tomorrow. Hopefully we get the taste out of our mouth with how we played tonight.”
— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 3, 2021