The Thunder returned to OKC to start a four-game home stand but fell behind early due to a big Pistons run. Despite getting back into the game in the third quarter and cutting the lead to single digits, the Thunder couldn’t get over the hump in this one.
Every minute of an NBA game is important – that’s the definition of the 48-minute mentality the Thunder has been trying to cultivate all season long – but as these developing players get more experience, they’re learning about the nuanced flows of the way certain sections of the game can have outsized impacts.
Monday night’s first quarter was a prime example of that phenomenon – as getting off to a slow start offensively led to some lapses defensively and ultimately, a 17-0 Pistons run that took the balance of the game out of the Thunder’s control. Detroit scored at all three levels – behind the arc, in the midrange and at the rim to keep the Thunder’s defense on its heels.
“We’ve gotten off to some slow starts here in the first quarter which we’ve got to solve,” said head coach Mark Daigneault. “We’ve got to come out of the gates with a little more pop and juice, so that it doesn’t take a run to try to climb back into the game.”
The Thunder settled down in the second quarter and even dropped in the first four points of the third quarter, including a one-footed step-back jumper on the baseline by Aleksej Pokuševski to cut Detroit’s lead to nine.
The Pistons immediately responded with an 11-0 burst, then the Thunder countered with a 12-0 run of its own behind a pair of dunks. That sequence also included a four-point possession, started by a steal by Svi Mykhailiuk and cross-court dish to Théo Maledon, who was fouled in transition on a layup. Brown kept the possession alive after a missed free throw, then Maledon was fouled again and hit both foul shots. That spurt trimmed Detroit’s lead to 68-59, giving the Thunder some life.
As it did right after the Thunder’s first charge out of the gates, the Pistons snapped back with an 11-2 run midway through the third quarter to break the game back open to an 18-point lead, one that was eventually insurmountable for the Thunder. Jerami Grant attacked to draw a foul, and Siddiq Bey scored on an and-one to start the burst, but the Thunder turned it over and missed three of its next four shots as the Pistons took control of the game for good.
Over the last few weeks Thunder fans have seen Pokuševski continue to get more comfortable with the ball in his hands as a playmaker and scorer, but Monday was an excellent example of his development as an off-ball offensive threat. Curling up the right wing to try and get a hand off from center Tony Bradley, Pokuševski noticed his defender over-playing and shading up too high above the 3-point line. Instead of forcing his way around the top of the key, the 19-year-old rookie cut backdoor through the middle of the lane.
“I’m just feeling more comfortable on the court and with the ball. it’s just coming natural for me. I just gotta keep playing hard and compete, and then everything else is gonna come,” said Pokuševski. “I’m playing the whole season good minutes, and every game is a new experience for me. I’m trying to learn from every game and just compete and then bring into the new day the things I learned from yesterday.”
Bradley kept his eyes up and used his 7-foot height and vision to make a pass over his defender’s head and into Pokuševski, who caught, turned and scored through a Piston who came over in help side and had no choice but to foul in the process.
“Just having great eye contact with the guy that has the ball and then, Bradley in the moment was watching me,” said Pokuševski. “It was a great pass at that time, in the moment and just moving quick and sharp.”
“Honestly, I’ve always been a fan of Poku ever since training camp,” said center Moses Brown. “It’s really an amazing thing to see him getting more confidence and having the game slow down for him and its really exciting to be out there with him.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 6, 2021
Steals by Svi Mykhailiuk in the game, a career-high, and part of a well-balanced performance by the third-year guard who scored 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. One of those steals was the epitome of the Thunder’s defense-to-offense mantra – a swipe on the weak side that lead to a massive two-handed slam in transition.
“It’s just being engaged, trying to be in the right spots every time and playing team defense,” said Mykhailiuk.
“I feel like it was definitely our awareness on defense. They got a lot of stuff in transition and got a lot of stuff at the free throw line so we’re going to attack it tomorrow and watch film.”
“We’re in a little bit of a trend right now – we’re playing uphill early, which is not a position you want to be in. We’ll continue to try to learn the lessons and take steps forward.”
Looking to snap a three-game skid, the Thunder’s home stand continues with a back-to-back set, starting on Wednesday against the Charlotte Hornets. In the meantime, Daigneault and the staff will try to get new two-way player Jaylen Hoard and 10-Day player Justin Robinson up to speed as the team navigates a plethora of injuries, including an ankle sprain sustained by Kenrich Williams in this game.
“You’d like to be at full strength, but it’s something that every team goes through in different points of the season,” said Daigneault. “There’s points in the season where things are going well and you’ve got to stay grounded in your process and keep your eye on the ball, even though you’re having success. Then there’s points in the season that you have to endure and you’ve got to kind of just battle and take your licks and taste your own blood a little bit.”
— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 6, 2021