The Oklahoma City Thunder endured an arduous stretch of games during the month of December. While only playing 13 games in the month, the Thunder faced an exceedingly high quality of opponents all December long.
After posting a 10-3 record in the month, Oklahoma City declared to the basketball world that the Thunder are not only the future but they have quickly become the present as well.
Last Week's Outcomes:
The Oklahoma City Thunder took down the New York Knicks on the second night of a back-to-back last Wednesday at Paycom Center.
The story of the night for OKC was its budding Big 3 of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Chet Holmgren. Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams both poured in an efficient 36 points each, and Holmgren added in 22 points while also blocking four shots.
On the second night of a back-to-back, the aforementioned efficiency from OKC's youngsters is what stands out the most. Gilgeous-Alexander could get wherever he wanted to on the floor all game.
If you squint, Jalen Williams looks like Shai Gilgeous Alexander 2.0 with his ability to get into the mid-range and knock down tough shots. Chet Holmgren made Isaiah Hartenstein (who's 7'0 feet tall) look too small all night long, getting whatever looks he wanted.
Oklahoma City rode this efficiency from their stars to a 129-120 victory over the Knicks.
Friday night featured a showdown between the 2nd and 3rd seeds in the Western Conference in Denver.
A three-point lead late in the first quarter was the best it got for the Nuggets as the Thunder had control of this contest throughout.
Chet Holmgren led the way for the Thunder in the first quarter, scoring OKC's first 10 points and 14 overall in the opening frame. From the second quarter on, it was the Shai Gilgeous-Alexander show.
Gilgeous-Alexander made it look easy on his way to 40 points, putting on a masterclass of scoring in the mid-range.
Gilgeous-Alexander helped to put the game away in the third quarter for OKC. A six-point halftime lead ballooned to a 20-point Thunder lead by the end of the third quarter. The Thunder cruised to a 119-93 victory over the Nuggets.
Denver has lost three games at home all year long, with two of those three losses coming to Oklahoma City.
Likewise, the Nuggets are 8-2 in their last ten games, with both losses coming at the hands of the Thunder. OKC snapped the Nuggets' six-game winning streak they carried into Friday night's matchup—really impressive stuff from this young Thunder squad.
The Thunder closed out 2023 against the Brooklyn Nets in their annual New Year's Eve game at
Paycom Center. After falling down 8-0 in the first two minutes, the Thunder responded and utilized a balanced scoring attack to trounce the Nets 124-108, closing out the calendar year with a W.
Gilgeous-Alexander led the way for OKC with 24 points, Josh Giddey chipped in 20 points on 50% shooting, Chet Holmgren and Lu Dort poured in 18 points each, and Jalen Williams scored a starting lineup-low 17 points in the victory over Brooklyn. That is 97 out of 124 (78%) total points scored in the game just from OKC's starting five.
The Thunder opened 2024 by welcoming the NBA's top team, the Boston Celtics, to Bricktown. This matchup pitted arguably the top two teams in the league at the moment against each other and left many questioning why this game wasn't nationally televised.
Instead, the nationally televised game in the early window was a snooze-fest between the Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers, but I digress.
Back to the game of the night. Despite deploying two All-NBA perimeter defenders against him, the Boston Celtics had no answer for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all night long.
However, the contest remained close throughout the first half. A three-point Celtics lead at halftime was quickly erased, and turned into an 18-point OKC lead early on in the 4th quarter.
The Celtics have been to the NBA Finals and have had numerous deep playoff runs in the past few seasons, so you knew they weren't going away despite the big OKC lead.
The closest they got was down two points before Jalen Williams hit a feathery pull-up jumper over Jayson Tatum to turn the game into a free-throw contest essentially.
While a blowout win would have been welcomed with open arms, the adversity the Thunder faced late in this game bodes well for them in both the short-term and long-term outlook of the team. Oklahoma City powered through that adversity and hung on to beat the title-favorite Celtics 127-123.
The strong close to the previous year and exciting beginning to the new year for the OKC is symbolic of things to come.
The Thunder are legit, and they'll be so for a long time. In this week's power rankings roundup, we'll take a look at where the Thunder stack up against the rest of the Association heading into 2024.
ESPN Power Ranking:
The Thunder rose to #4 in ESPN's weekly power rankings list for the week. Tim MacMahon of ESPN acknowledges Oklahoma City's homegrown core coming into their own in the past few weeks.
"Oklahoma City went 10-3 in December, when the Thunder's blossoming big three of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren combined to average 68.1 points while shooting 54.5% from the floor."- Tim MacMahon
Oklahoma City has seen more than its fair share of talented players pass through the organization since 2008. From MVPs like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden to All-Stars like Paul George, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony, Thunder fans have truly been spoiled with the sheer level of individual talent they've experienced.
That being said, while in the early stages of its inception, the pairing of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chet Holmgren, and Jalen Williams might be the one that compliments each other the best.
While the individual talent level might not match that of three MVPs on the same team at once, the way this core plays together and feeds off one another is eye-popping.
All three of Gilgeous Alexander, Holmgren, and Williams can defend multiple positions at a high level while simultaneously being three-level scorers on the offensive side of the ball.
The most impressive part of the pairing is none of the three demand the ball in isolation situations. They all plug in effortlessly to the offensive game plan and complement one another's play style to the highest degree.
ESPN's full power rankings list can be read here.
NBA.com Power Ranking:
After a dominant week, the Thunder climbed to #2 in this week's NBA.com Power Ranking. Thanks to convincing wins over the Timberwolves and Nuggets, this is the highest the Thunder have ranked on NBA.com all season long.
John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes how impressive the Thunder's dominance from inside the arc has been so far this season.
"They’ve gone 19 straight games without being outscored from 2-point range, and only once this season have they been outscored by more than two points inside the arc. While (as noted last week) they’ll give up some threes, the Thunder rank fourth in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (54.6%) and third in the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the paint (46.3%). The first number is lower (53.4%), while the second number is a tick higher (46.5%) with Holmgren on the floor."- John Schuhmann
Gilgeous-Alexander's innate ability to get to the rim and either score himself or create an easy layup for a teammate plays a large part.
On the other end of the floor Holmgren's shot-blocking, and more importantly, his rim protection, plays a key role in this equation as well.
The Thunder's roster is comprised of players who have strengths that feed off one another. Combine that with the youth and comradery this core continues to grow, and you're potentially looking at a perennial title contender for the next decade.
The full NBA.com week 11 power ranking list can be read here.
The Athletic Power Ranking:
The Thunder leaped back into the "Contenders" tier and landed at #2 in The Athletic's weekly NBA power ranking. Zach Harper of The Athletic notes that the Thunder "can't be denied any longer" and he's right.
Throw away the notions you may have about this team. The idea that they're too young, small, and unproven to make a run at anything significant is flawed.
Just because Oklahoma City doesn't fit the cookie-cutter mold of what a contender typically looks like in the NBA doesn't mean they aren't one. If you simply evaluate what we see on the floor every night, it's clear as day that this team is legitimate.
Take a team like the 2020-2021 Phoenix Suns for example. No prior playoff experience, a relatively young core, and the only major acquisition made in the offseason was Chris Paul. The Suns rode strong team chemistry, good coaching, and a bit of luck all the way to the NBA Finals.
They ultimately fell in six games to the Milwaukee Bucks, but the fact the organization even made it there after failing to qualify for the playoffs in the previous ten (!) seasons should serve as a blueprint for the Thunder. Holmgren was OKC's major offseason addition just as Paul was for Phoenix.
You don't always need to be a grizzled, veteran team that triumphs after years and years of playoff failures to make a deep run. Sometimes all it takes is a strong foundation, a few great players, good coaching, and a bit of luck along the way.
The Thunder's success so far through the season can no longer be denied; this team is legitimately one of the best in the league. For a team like the Thunder, their path to a deep playoff run would align with their organizational goal of truly being uncommon.
The Athletic's full power rankings list can be read here.
The Week Ahead:
The Thunder will hit the road for the second night of a back-to-back in Atlanta on Wednesday night. OKC handled Atlanta at home earlier in the year 126-117. Be on the lookout for Mark Daigneault to widen his rotation and dig deep into the bench as he typically does on the second night of a back-to-back.
OKC will then head to Brooklyn on Friday night to face the Nets for the second time in the week. After taking the Nets down on New Year's Eve, the Thunder will look to sweep the season series versus Brooklyn. Look for adjustments to be made by both squads in this quick turnaround between match-ups.
The Thunder will close out the week in the nation's capitol on Monday when they take on the Washington Wizards. The Thunder swept the season series against the Wizards last year, with the game in D.C. ending with this Shai Gilgeous-Alexander game-winning three-point shot.
After a rugged schedule to end 2023, the Thunder welcome an easier strength of schedule in the first month of 2024. While opponent quality will see a decrease, the volume of games will ramp up quickly. The Thunder will be on the road for the majority of the month and will have five (!) back-to-backs in January.