In the Thunder’s 2020-21 regular season debut featured a series of undulating runs, a fast-paced tempo and a go-ahead, game-winning jumper from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It took resilience and a “what’s else” mentality for the Thunder to outlast the Hornets in its regular season opener.
Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault got an early shower following his NBA coaching debut in Charlotte. After a game that went down to the wire and required a game-winning play, the Thunder players thought their first-year head coach deserved a proper celebration in the locker room after their first win.
“We just showered him with some with some water,” said Thunder forward Darius Bazley. “All I know is that Coach is great every day. He brings it every day.”
It was this sort of consistency that Coach Daigneault had been preaching to his team throughout training camp. “It’s a 48-minute game,” he would tell them. That mentality was put to the test in a game of runs against Charlotte. Shifting tides of momentum tested Coach Daigneault’s squad to see if they could stick to their foundations and principles regardless of the circumstances.
“Coach has been preaching with us since training camp we have to have a “what else” mentality,” said Thunder guard George Hill. “That means when things aren’t going our way, what else can we do to get better. When we’re not shooting the ball well, what else can we do, drive it harder, play smarter, play more together.”
It started with a slow shooting night for the Thunder to open the game (2-for-10 from 3 in the first quarter). The squad managed a mini 12-2 run sparked by a pair of 3-pointers from Mike Muscala and Hill to take its first lead of the game before Charlotte immediately answered with a large 22-7 run of its own to take a double-digit lead. The Thunder’s scoring stalled, fouls ensued and the Hornets took advantage with a flurry of easy transition buckets, free throws and a quick outburst of shooting by Devonte’ Graham.
Going into halftime, the Thunder trailed 57-59 and Coach Daigneault had a very simple message for his team in the locker room.
“I challenged the guys at halftime to just play with a little more force,” said Daigneault. “Charlotte was applying a ton of pressure, and when you play against pressure you can’t play on your heels.”
The message clearly resonated with the group as the Thunder built its largest lead of the night in the third quarter with a renewed energy and thrust defensively. OKC would outscore Charlotte 23-16 in the third quarter and hold the Hornets to 6-of-31 from the field.
“I thought we did a better job of not fouling on silly plays. We had a couple of the first half that were avoidable, and kind of unforced. I thought our pursuits and our sense of urgency on their guard play was really good,’ said Daigneault. “In the second half, there was a lot more will and toughness on the ball, and after getting screened you just got to keep coming especially against players like those. I thought our guys did a really good job.”
“We were a 48 minute team tonight.”
— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) December 27, 2020
In the fourth quarter, the Thunder led 102-89 with 2:11 remaining on the clock and it looked to be smooth sailing to its first win of the season. Charlotte, however, wasn’t going down without a fight.
A subsequent combination of four straight Thunder turnovers coupled with three consecutive 3-pointers by Miles Bridges aided to a late 18-7 Charlotte run to ultimately tie the game with 10 seconds left. It was a situation this Thunder squad hadn’t faced before. Charlotte applied a full-court press, denied every passing lane and looked to slow the game down to a crawl in order to give itself a chance.
After Bridges knocked down his third 3-pointer in the right corner, the Thunder’s precious lead had turned into a tied ball game at 107 with 9.7 seconds remaining.
The Thunder immediately called a timeout following Bridges’ corner 3-pointer. In the huddle, Coach Daigneault, calm and collected, drew up a play to get the ball cleanly inbounded to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, balance the floor and give him space to work.
When the third-year guard caught the ball, he sized up his defender in Cody Martin and pushed the ball across the timeline. In his go-to moment, the Thunder’s rising star went to a trusty move he had employed throughout the game—a left-handed, in-and-out cross over. The move sent Martin stumbling backwards which gave Gilgeous-Alexander all the daylight he needed to let the ball fly. The shot went in with just 1.4 seconds on the clock which proved not enough time for the Hornets to respond.
“When Coach drew it up, and he told Shai to go at six (seconds) – I kind of already in my head I was like, ‘He’s hitting the shot.’ I didn’t know what he was going to do, but you know that’s Shai,” said Bazley.
“I’ve got a couple moves that I like to get to on the iso, then after that, it’s just read and reaction,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It’s a shot I practice a lot, the same foot stop, and it went in.”
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) December 27, 2020
Last season, George Hill led the NBA in 3-point percentage with an impressive 46-percent clip from deep. He carried over this performance in his debut with the Thunder and added to the record books while he was at it. With his 21-point performance on 8-of-9 shooting and a perfect 4-of-4 from the 3-point line, the Thunder newcomer tied for sixth in points scored in an OKC debut.
“Just having fun out there,” said Hill. “I was never big on percentages and things like that I just take the shots that the defense gives me and play the right way.”
“George was great tonight,” said Daigneault. “So was Al [Horford]. That’s what makes those guys so good is they’ve really learned who they are as players, and they have tremendous consistency. You know what you’re getting every single night.”
“It’s fun to learn all this with those young guys. Like I told them, it’s not going to be perfect, this season is going to have a lot of ups and downs, wins and losses but the more we can stay together, be resilient, be all on the same court we’ll be fine.”
“We showed a lot of resilience. Coach talks about it all the time. It’s a 48-minute game so we’ve got to play the full length. We had a bit of a lead, and they cut into it, and it became kind of a free throw shooting game at the end. I think we can close out games a little bit better, but I’m definitely glad we got the win. It just showed that we were able to withstand lulls.”
The Thunder will return home to begin its first back-to-back of the season. On Monday, the team will face Utah in Chesapeake Energy Arena followed by a Tuesday tilt against Orlando at 7 p.m. CT.
— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) December 27, 2020