The Oklahoma City Thunder have been in so many close games in
February that you don’t even need a calculator to figure out their
total margin of defeat and victory. Over their last 10 contests,
the team has gone just 3-7, yet they're coming up 6.5 points short
on average, even with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the sidelines for
half the time. And in the first six games of that stretch, every
outcome was decided by three possessions or fewer.
Clutch time is defined as a game being within five points, ahead
or behind, with five minutes or fewer left in the game. According
to NBA.com, OKC has racked up 40 minutes of clutch time since Feb.
5, only trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves (41) in said scenario.
It should come as no surprise that both ball clubs, two of the
youngest rosters in the NBA, struggle during these
Along with the Wolves, the Thunder have recorded a sub-90
offensive rating, a true shooting percentage below 51% and a
turnover percentage exceeding 18% in clutch time. What seems worse
is the aforementioned poor results.
It’s a bottom-line business when all is said and done, but the
truth is that the Thunder are in a development stage of a rebuild,
one that, for all intents and purposes, is clearly off to a
successful start. When you’ve had the sixth-hardest strength of
schedule to this point and a significantly low net rating, having a
12-18 record in spite of both is a positive sign.
In addition to the foundation -- starting with rising star
Gilgeous-Alexander, brimming-with-potential Darius Bazley and
fast-learning Luguentz Dort -- there are still plenty of pieces to
be added down the line via the draft, all thanks to the cunning
brilliance of general manager Sam Presti.
Yet in the present, there’s been something much more valuable
than roster upgrades can provide for OKC: meaningful
“First of all, it’s great," said Thunder head coach Mark
Daigneault. "At the end of the day, most teams in the league are
gonna play half their games where [there’s] five minutes left in
the game and it’s still gonna be a really competitive game. A skill
that I think every player and every team has to develop is the
ability to execute on both ends of the floor in a possession game
like that. When you get to the highest-stakes games, even if the
playoffs, the window of time that the game is like that is even
more evolved. It’s huge to be able to go through those situations
and to see how guys respond and teach from those moments.
“I think we’ve handled them pretty well. I think we’ve put
ourselves in positions to win some, and even the ones that we
haven’t come out on top, I think our execution in a lot of those
[games] have been good. Our guys have taken the lessons and evolved
forward and we’re a more confident team when it comes to executing
in those moments.”
Daigneault concedes that the Thunder took their share of
thumpings earlier in the season, as pretty much all of the NBA has
this season already due to the nature of the campaign. However, the
first-year head coach credits his players for keeping their heads
up and fighting through it, which is why OKC has been involved in
so many recent tight encounters.
“We just kinda keep playing. As of late, we’ve been really,
really competitive. We keep playing through the schedule and we
keep playing through the game,” Daigenault said. “We’ve got a group
of guys that see adversity as a challenge, so when they get knocked
down they dust themselves off and they get back up -- especially
when the competition is still going on. Competitiveness is a
learned skill, and we’ve got a group of guys who have that type of
makeup and have sharpened that blade and have found energy from
competing together in those moments. We’re certainly fortunate to
be able to coach these guys.”
Every talking point Daigneault gets across with his group comes
back to the word “compete,” and the players follow suit. Upstart
rookie Theo Maledon and breakout third-year swingman Hamidou Diallo
relay that the close losses have taught them how important it is to
maintain their energy for a full 48 minutes of a game. Mike
Muscala, a veteran stretch big man in his seventh season, went into
more detail on this concept.
“It just comes down to treating each possession like it matters
-- being focused offensively, defensively, staying aggressive,”
Muscala said. “There’s gonna be nights, periods of the game,
periods of the season where shots are falling and things are good
and vice-versa. So it comes down to having good habits, being there
for each other, supporting each other, playing good defense and
resting our hat on that on the effort side of it. Coach is
preaching it a lot; we can always control how much we’re competing.
If you do that throughout the course of the season, you can live
with the results.
“...I think if you treat it that way, it humbles you and it
balances things out so it’s not so up-and-down. If you’re focused
on that current possession... you can look back on the film after
the game and see what went well and what didn’t. But if you’re
focused on each possession, you don’t have as much time to dwell on
what happened in the past or look too far into the future. And I
think throughout this season being 72 games [with] all the
COVID-related uncertainties and whatnot, just finding some solace
in the game and in the present moment. Coach Mark does a great job
of that, making sure we stay grateful for the opportunity to play
and try to get lost in the game being there for each other.”
Needless to say, Daigneault has been grateful for Muscala and
the other veterans on his team for their commitment since the
2020-21 campaign tipped off. Guys like Al Horford, George Hill,
Darius Miller and Muscala have been not only coachable, but also
teachers to Daigneault himself and the team as whole when they need
a guiding hand.
“The most important thing in what they do is in terms of
‘walking the walk.’ When you have a young team in the locker room,
these guys are trying to figure out where they fit in, figure out
how to act, how to prepare, how to play,” Daigneault said. “Their
eyes are opened, especially with guys like Al and George and Mike
and Darius. We have a lot of impressionable players because they’re
really young in their careers, so those [veteran] guys really are
an unbelievable walking example of professionalism, of preparation,
of maturity and then going out there and playing winning
basketball. They have winning habits, they’re highly fundamental,
they’re ruthlessly consistent. Fortunately, we never prompt guys to
feel like they have to take a vocal role on, but those guys have
offered that up.
“They’ve really tried to put their arm around guys. They’re
especially good in huddles in the games -- because the games can be
emotional and especially for a younger team, the emotion of the
game can get kinda volatile at times -- and they’ve been through so
many battles that they’re a real calming influence in the huddles
and on the court. That’s been a secondary benefit to the fact that
they’re also really good players.”
There’s been an encouraging domino effect to come out of this
latest string of games. While Maledon can recollect times where
he’s been pulled aside by one of his vets for a lesson, he instead
chooses to put the spotlight on how there’s not one singular group
or person who is the leader of the Thunder.
“The good thing about this team is everyone is doing it, no
matter if it’s Al or the guy that’s not a veteran that only has a
couple years in the league,” Maledon said. “Every time we see
something, we talk to each other, we hold ourselves accountable for
mistakes... That helps us move forward and correct the things that
we made mistakes on and do the right thing after.”
Even Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC’s superstar in the making, has to
agree with that notion.
“It’s been fun. I don’t really see myself as the lone leader of
this team,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “There’s so many guys that
step up, whether it be verbally or on the court. I think we have a
group of guys that are so selfless that there’s no designated
leader. We just all want the best for each other, and we all do the
right thing in the right moment.
“And that’s one of the things that Coach says. A leader’s not
the oldest guy or the most talented player, it’s the guy that’s
doing the right thing at the right time. And we have so many guys
that are like that, it doesn’t really put pressure on me to be the
leader or the vocal leader or whatever it may be.”
This rebuild is right on schedule.