The return of Thunder legends Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Paul George — all in one team — in OKC brought back memories. The electrifying dunks, the playoff runs, the buzzer-beaters, and the ups and downs of that era of Thunder basketball have put the entire city on the sports map.
Now, a new era — with similarly great young players — has been for the OKC Thunder. On Thursday night, it was the young Thunder crew that emerged from the well-fought clash of OKC eras.
OKC Thunder snapped the Los Angeles Clippers’ nine-game winning streak with a dominant 134-115 showing to solidify their place in the second spot of the Western Conference standings.
Albeit without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers posed a great challenge for the Thunder. But the Thunder took care of business from start to finish, withstanding an early third-quarter storm en route to a somewhat lopsided OKC win.
It was a great display of offensive execution for the Thunder, where ball movement was heavily emphasized, and the defensive pressure was turned up a notch. It felt like most of the recipes for a winning performance were put together to halt the Clippers’ red-hot streak.
Chet Holmgren is a matchup nightmare at the center spot
Chet Holmgren is unlike any other center in the league. He has the tools to be great, undoubtedly, but what he showed in the win versus the Clippers was his sheer audacity.
Case in point: this off-the-backboard dunk to steal the lead in the third quarter.
Holmgren had 23 points, six rebounds, and seven assists on a highly efficient 9-of-11 from the field, including two three-point makes.
“That was like an at-the-park move," Holmgren said. "Just growing up hooping at the courts. I guess it just happened, it’s not like 'I’ma do this.'
Holmgren’s tools — his shooting, off-the-bounce chops, and ability to score from three levels — gave the slow-footed Ivica Zubac a huge problem throughout the matchup. This is where the Thunder pounced and held off the Clippers for most of the game.
Zubac’s minutes were reduced to just 17, taking him out of the game. The Clippers’ other center Daniel Theis also played only 15 minutes.
Having Holmgren gave the Thunder a huge matchup piece that can negate any big that could not handle his chops and athleticism. It is an advantage that could pay huge dividends in any playoff series.
His versatility should also put OKC in a great place against teams who like to play small ball as Holmgren provides everything any six-foot-seven forward and more, but in a seven-foot-one lanky frame.
Shooting is a huge key
OKC Thunder has been scorching hot from the three-point range in the season, knocking down 38.6 percent of their threes — the second-highest percentage behind the Miami Heat.
Much can be said about this red-hot touch from the outside — from hiring legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland to engineering a scheme with a by-product of open three-pointers — but the Thunder players sometimes just had it in them on a game-to-game basis. In this game, it felt like everything clocked on all cylinders.
The Thunder made 16 out of their 34 threes in the win, which constituted about 47 percent shooting from deep.
Josh Giddey made all three triples before going out with a sprained left ankle for 11 points in 14 minutes. Lu Dort also had three triples, while known shooter Isaiah Joe also had three from long range.
Great shooting changed the game's dynamics as the Clippers’ defense had to be wary of helping on the OKC Thunder’s drives, opening up the lane for the team’s drivers.
Spacing is a huge aspect of the Thunder’s offense. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made the most of the generated space through those to score 31 points and lead the team to victory.
OKC is special with a clicking Lu Dort
Lu Dort has been the Thunder’s glue guy since his emergence in 2020. His defensive chops have been well-documented, and his offensive struggles have been a subject of debate for the longest time.
But when he found his groove on offense, the Thunder was in an excellent position.
Lu Dort had 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting, alongside four points to deliver on the offensive side of the floor, which opened so many possibilities for the Thunder’s offense to thrive
Dort has been a solid off-the-dribble driver in his career. However, his finishing has been suspect. Dort got himself going with those paint finishes as the Clippers lost their rim-protecting bigs with Chet Holmgren’s offensive activity.
Just like in the defensive end, Dort fed off of Holmgren in that, successfully making the most of the created advantages and drilling shots the defense gave.
Dort’s offensive leap would open the floodgates for the Thunder’s offense. Players like Holmgren, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Jalen Williams need a complementary, reliable three-and-D guy to be a deadly five-man unit. Dort would be perfect to fill that role, especially on games that matter most.
Hopefully, this is the start of something great on both ends of the floor for Dort.