The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the midst of a rugged stretch of games during the month of December. Each passing game provides more context for both Thunder management and fans of the organization alike.
Last Week's Outcomes
Opening the week with a disappointing loss in H-Town, the Thunder returned home and picked up two quality wins against the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz. All three of these games followed entirely different scripts and provided the Thunder with data points going forward.
The loss to the Rockets was disappointing all around. The second-best three-point shooting team in the league shot 27.6% from beyond the arc in the defeat. Despite strong performances off the bench from Aaron Wiggins and Tre Mann, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the only Thunder starter who showed up. To make matters worse, Rockets reserve Aaron Holiday scored his most points in a game since 2019 while also tying his career high in three-pointers made in a game with six.
Oklahoma City rebounded (not literally, of course) against the Warriors at home on Friday night. Despite losing the rebound battle 60-39, the Thunder forced an astounding 29 Warriors turnovers en route to an exhilarating overtime victory.
On a night when the Paycom Center was possibly the most rambunctious it had been in a half-decade, you could hear a pin drop with 7.1 seconds remaining in regulation when rookie center Chet Holmgren stepped to the free throw line. Completely unfazed, Holmgren drilled three consecutive free throws to send the game to OT.
During the five-minute overtime frame in which the Thunder completely controlled, OKC's core recreated an iconic moment in Thunder history. The "Pizza Rolls" meme.
While being unironically funny, this moment served as more than just the resurfacing of a legendary meme. It felt like an iconic moment in its own right. An arrival, so to speak.
After a weekend of rest, the Thunder took advantage of a banged-up Utah Jazz squad at home, winning the match 134-120. Leading by as many as 38 points in the 3rd quarter, the Thunder reserves let their foot slip off the gas in the final frame. The Jazz outscored the Thunder by 22 in the 4th quarter, with the final score not being indicative of the Thunder's normal rotation dominating the non-garbage time minutes of the contest.
The Thunder were able to learn valuable lessons from each game this past week. A 2-1 record is nothing to sneeze at especially considering the rigorous schedule OKC has to endure practically all month. We'll take a look at how national media outlets rate the Thunder's performance through eight weeks of NBA action, and where they stack up against the rest of the league.
ESPN Power Rankings:
The Thunder dropped one spot from last week to land at #5 in this week's ESPN power ranking. Tim MacMahon of ESPN's excerpt on the Thunder is solely focused on Gilgeous-Alexander and his historic dominance through 22 games.
"Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is making a strong MVP case in OKC. He has the league's first three-game streak of 30-point, three-steal performances since James Harden in 2020, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. It's a feat that had never been accomplished in franchise history. Gilgeous-Alexander is tied for fifth in the NBA in scoring (30.4 points per game) and leads the league in steals (2.8). The only players to average as many points and steals in a season: Hall of Famers Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan and Rick Barry."- Tim MacMahon
SGA's high level of play extends beyond himself. When the pairing of Shai and sixth man Isaiah Joe shares the court, they have the best net rating of any duo in the Association thus far.
Since being handed the keys to the franchise in 2020, it has been evident that Shai will thrive with high-level shooters surrounding him on the court. We saw it for years with Mike Muscala. Joe's ability to draw so much attention to himself allows for OKC to run guard-to-guard screens that yield highly positive outcomes.
The evolution of Gilgeous-Alexander's game has taken the Thunder to a whole new level in the past few seasons. Continued growth from the budding superstar and the young core surrounding him should be a scary sight for the rest of the league.
ESPN's full power rankings of the NBA this past week can be found here.
NBA.com Power Rankings:
OKC stood firmly at #4 on NBA.com's weekly power ranking. The Thunder slipped a bit in both offensive rating and defensive rating since last week. The Thunder have gone from #5 in both categories to 8th in offensive rating and 6th in defensive rating, scoring them the 3rd-best net rating in the Association.
The Thunder's offense and defense grade out so well largely due to their ability to force opponents into turnovers, while simultaneously limiting their own. Historically, young teams are careless with the ball and will trend towards the top of the league in turnovers. The Thunder are the second youngest team in the NBA, yet they have the least amount of total turnovers.
John Schuhmann of NBA.com references two games from the past week in which the Thunder built on their league-leading turnover differential numbers.
"The Warriors also committed 29 turnovers. The Thunder now lead the league in turnover differential (3.8 fewer per game than their opponents), with their two games last week coming with two of the six biggest differentials for any team this season (-12 at Houston, -18 vs. Golden State)."- John Schuhmann
Turning teams over is the first step, but capitalizing on these turnovers is the key for the Thunder. Over a quarter of the way through the regular season, OKC has done just that. Oklahoma City leads the league in points scored off turnovers at 20.9 per game.
This will be key for the Thunder to carry into the playoffs, where the pace of the game slows down significantly. Jumping on chances to generate odd-man breaks could be the key for the Thunder to win a game, and maybe even a series come springtime.
The rest of the NBA.com Week 8 power rankings can be read here.
CBS Sports Power Rankings:
The Thunder find themselves at #5 on the weekly (exclusively Tuesday-Monday only of the prior week) CBS Sports NBA power ranking. A two-spot drop from the prior week is understandable, considering the Thunder were 3-0 during the previous week's action.
In his power rankings article, Colin Ward-Henninger of CBS Sports cites how spectacular Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had played during the past weeks' games.
"Shai Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 34 points, six assists and five steals (!) per game this week on 62% shooting. Goodness."- Colin Ward-Henninger
We've discussed the offensive efficiency of Shai at length, yet it's seemingly more impressive now. Of the seven players in the NBA averaging at least 20 field goal attempts per game, SGA is the only one shooting 55%+. Let that sink in. A guard, shooting above 55% from the field over the quarter of the way through the season. That is not normal.
Possibly even more impressive is the defensive impact of Gilgeous-Alexander. There was no typo in the excerpt from Ward-Henninger. Shai averaged five steals per game over a week of action. For a guard who was once seen as a liability on that side of the ball, Shai has completely changed the narrative.
The eye test confirms what the statistics suggest. Shai is legitimately a good defender and his commitment to that side of the ball is a big reason for the Thunder's steady improvement over the last two seasons.
Ward-Henninger's thoughts on the past week of action around the Association can be found here.
Learning Lessons Through Experience
Numerous pressing questions surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder during the offseason have been answered. For example, many folks wondered if Chet Holmgren would be able to hold up at the center position. The answer has been a resounding yes.
Other preexisting questions remain unanswered and require more of what head coach Mark Daigneault likes to call "pictures" to be figured out long-term. Josh Giddey's fit alongside the starting lineup has been a big question for most fans of the team. It'll take more than a 22-game sample size for the Thunder to conclude one way or another.
Daigneault's constant experimentation with lineups and player minutes will undoubtedly aid the Thunder in answering the questions about Giddey's fit sooner rather than later. A willingness to step out of the norm with his lineups sometimes leads to an uproar from the fanbase, but Coach Daigneault's approach and commitment to the long-term vision of the organization are steadfast.
The Week Ahead
The Thunder will travel to California's capital city and take on the Sacramento Kings on Thursday in a late-night showdown. The Thunder have dropped their last seven games against Sacramento, with their last win coming in 2021 when Lu Dort stripped De'Aaron Fox with mere seconds on the clock and went coast-to-coast for the game-winning layup.
On Saturday the Thunder will be in the Mile High City to face the defending champion Denver Nuggets. The Thunder's home opener this year was spoiled by the Nuggets as Denver dominated the contest from start to finish. OKC will look to return the favor and beat Denver on their home court, something they did in late January last season.
The Thunder will close out their week on Monday night at home versus the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have struggled mightily all season long without Ja Morant due to his suspension. This game will be the last in which Ja is suspended, so it's a game the Thunder should be able to capitalize on.