The Oklahoma City Thunder have yet to lose more than two consecutive games this season. That was put to the test during this past week’s road trip.
After dropping two close ones in LA, the Thunder traveled to Utah to play the white-hot Jazz. The Jazz were riding a six-game win streak heading into the matchup against OKC.
The Thunder’s maturity was on full display as they held a wire-to-wire victory over Utah. Oklahoma City was tested all game long but showed tremendous resolve to gut out an impressive road win.
Speaking of impressive road wins, the Thunder faced off with the Timberwolves on Saturday night at the Target Center. Minnesota was the top team in the Western Conference and had only lost two games on their home floor to that point.
That is until Oklahoma City waltzed into their home arena and earned a gritty win against a fully healthy Timberwolves squad. The Thunder trailed by as much as 11 points in the fourth quarter but continued to chip away until they were fully able to take control of the game.
This win was equally as important as it was impressive, as the Thunder have clinched at least a tie in the season series with the Timberwolves, something that may come into play as the regular season winds down.
The Thunder returned home to close out their week on Tuesday night against an energized and motivated Portland Trailblazers team. In a contest that featured late-game fireworks (and a lot of controversy), the Thunder were able to squeeze by Portland on the heels of an incredibly clutch Jalen Williams game-winner.
A 3-0 week against both good and hungry teams is a stellar response to what was a lackluster trip to Hollywood last week. We'll take a look at where the newly minted best team in the West stacks up in this week's power rankings round-up.
ESPN Power Rankings:
The Oklahoma City Thunder climbed one spot and landed at #3 in ESPN's weekly NBA power rankings. In his excerpt on the Thunder, Tim MacMahon of ESPN notes that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having one of the most impressive scoring seasons in OKC history.
"In the Thunder's 42nd game, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had his 30th 30-point performance of the season in Sunday's win over the Timberwolves. It's the fewest games needed to reach the mark by any player in SuperSonics/Thunder franchise history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only three SuperSonics/Thunder players had 25 30-point performances at this point: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during their respective MVP seasons and Gilgeous-Alexander a year ago. Oklahoma City is 23-8 when Gilgeous-Alexander scores at least 30 and 7-5 when he doesn't."- Tim MacMahon
While Gilgeous-Alexander's offensive ascension has helped propel the Thunder to new heights, his willingness to buy into the team is equally, if not more important than his scoring prowess.
It doesn't happen often in The Association, but having a top-five player in the league who doesn't drift away from the team concept is exceptionally rare and valuable.
Coach Mark Daigneault has discussed it before: the more status an individual player achieves in the league, the more an outside force pulls this player away from their team.
Coach Daigneault suggests that Gilgeous-Alexander doesn't buy into this mindset at all, something that is evident by the way he and the rest of this team operate.
The Trailblazers game is a perfect example of this. Down the stretch, the Thunder needed a big shot on two separate occasions. With the game on the line, Daigneault will surely draw the play for his MVP candidate, right?
Wrong. The Thunder used Gilgeous-Alexander as a decoy not once, but twice to give Jalen Williams a chance to win them the game. Williams delivered both times, including this game-winning dagger.
Instead of pouting about not getting the final shot(s) down the stretch of a tight game, Gilgeous-Alexander demonstrated why he's the most unselfish superstar in the league.
Not only did he serve as a decoy to set Williams up for success, but he also stayed locked in afterward and stole the ball from the Blazers on their game-winning lob attempt.
Again, this is a very rare trait from one of the premier basketball players in the world. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's unselfishness should not be taken for granted by Thunder fans, as it is a big reason why this team is so dynamic and unpredictable on a night-to-night basis.
ESPN's full NBA power rankings list can be found here.
NBA.com Power Rankings:
The Thunder dropped from the top of the league to #5 in this week's NBA.com power rankings. John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes that OKC's trip to LA was less than stellar, but credits their response in both Utah and Minnesota.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's three-point efficiency is down this season, but Schuhmann remarks that it hasn't affected the other aspects of his game.
"For the season, Gilgeous-Alexander has taken 17% of his shots from beyond the arc, up from a career-low 12% last season. His 3-point percentage (32.6%) is down, but he’s still registering career-high marks in both effective field goal percentage (57.7%) and true shooting percentage (64.8%). Plus, his 2-point percentage (59.5%) is the best mark of his career by a wide margin."- John Schuhmann
In the 2021-2022 season, Gilgeous-Alexander shot a career-high 5.3 three-point attempts per game but only shot them at a 30% clip. Gilgeous-Alexander experimented with his shot diet a bit in that season and ultimately found himself taking tough side-step and stepback three-point jumpers that became somewhat predictable for defenders.
Since that season, Gilgeous-Alexander has thoroughly dialed back his three-point attempts per game, and it has yielded tremendous results.
While his three-point efficiency still doesn't jump off the charts, look no further than the Minnesota game this past week to understand the value in Gilgeous-Alexander being much more selective with his three-point attempts.
Gilgeous-Alexander had only taken one three-pointer in the contest until about 80 seconds were remaining in regulation. Down one, he used a burst of speed to catch Jaden McDaniels off balance and then glided into a smooth stepback three that has become a patented move of his.
We saw the same thing last season. The should-have-been game-winner against the Bucks, the actual game-winner against the Wizards, and many more clutch three-pointers. Gilgeous-Alexander has an uncanny ability to deliver from deep in the clutch, despite being a below-average three-point shooter.
This can be credited to his shot selection in the 40-plus minutes prior to clutch time. Gilgeous-Alexander applies constant pressure to defenses on the inside of the arc all game long.
As a defender, you're almost always gearing up for the drive as Gilgeous-Alexander is lethal around the rim and in the mid-range.
Since he's only taken maybe one or two three-point attempts all game long, defenders aren't prepared when he pulls one out in crunch time.
This slight wrinkle to Gilgeous-Alexander's game has helped him to slightly improve his efficiency from deep. More importantly, it's led to Gilgeous-Alexander constantly delivering in the clutch for the Thunder over the past two seasons.
The rest of the NBA.com power rankings can be found here.
The Athletic Power Rankings:
The Thunder land at #2 and still sit in the "Contenders" category in The Athletic's weekly power ranking.
Zach Harper of The Athletic chose to give each team its mid-season quarterly grade based on their performance relative to expectations heading into the season.
Harper gives the Thunder an A+, as they have risen from a team that snuck into the Play-In Tournament last season to a team that sits atop the Western Conference as January is drawing to a close.
Harper acknowledges that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a bonified MVP candidate, that Chet Holmgren fits seamlessly as a rookie, and that Jalen Williams' has officially ascended into an all-star caliber player.
All of this plus more adds up to the Thunder being a top team in the league, just two years removed from being one of the league's worst teams by record.
The Thunder have earned every bit of that A+ grade for their performance to this point in the season. For the first time in a decade, the Thunder are at the top of the Western Conference standings this late into the season, something that is ultra impressive from the league's second-youngest team.
After the game against the Trailblazers, Coach Daigneault noted the Thunder's continuity as a major factor in their success so far this season. What the Thunder have been building over the past few seasons goes beyond developing skill sets on the court.
The team chemistry and continuity the organization has intentionally been building can not be under-sold. It is one of the driving forces behind the league's brightest young team, and perhaps the secret to their success.
The Thunder are full of like-minded, high-character, highly motivated, and similarly aged players that fit so seamlessly together. Oklahoma City realizes that any team's success on the court is due in large part to the foundation that is laid off the court, so they've worked tirelessly to assemble a team that fits together.
The rest of The Athletic's weekly NBA power rankings can be found here.
The Week Ahead:
The Thunder will hit the road again on Wednesday night for the second night of a back-to-back to face off against Victor Wembanyama and the San Antonio Spurs.
Wembanyama has been performing much better as of late, with increases in both efficiency and raw averages drawing the Rookie of the Year race between him and Oklahoma City's Chet Holmgren much closer.
Oklahoma City will get to avenge one of their worst losses of the season on Friday night in New Orleans against the Pelicans.
These two teams last matched up on November 1st, when OKC squandered a 22-point lead at home on national television. Both teams have evolved since this early-season contest, so expect a great game between two of the West's top teams.
The Thunder will then travel to the Motor City for a Sunday afternoon contest against the NBA-worst Detroit Pistons. Games like these serve as a must-win for OKC. True contenders don't drop games to historically poor teams, so look for the Thunder to come out and make a statement against Detroit.
On the second night of another back-to-back, the Thunder will host the Timberwolves for the teams' second match-up in ten days. This will be a chance for OKC to outright win the season series versus Minnesota, and potentially set themselves up better for success come postseason time.
As this strenuous slate of games in January draws to a close, the Thunder will continue to be tested on a nightly basis and will lean on their evolving maturity to get them through.