MEMPHIS, Tennessee — The 24 hours leading up to Wednesday’s 8 p.m. tip off were unusual circumstances for the Thunder. Blizzard conditions in Oklahoma City forced the team to depart for Memphis the day of the game and arrive to the arena straight from the airport — just two hours prior to tip.
None of this, however, would be used as ammunition for the Thunder to coast through their matchup with the Grizzlies. According to Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault: “If you spoon feed these guys an excuse, they’re gonna spit it back out.” That no-excuse mentality was demonstrated in the locker room before the game where the Thunder’s third-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gave a message to his group in order to set the tone for the night.
“Obviously the circumstances were a little bit different tonight. But it’s our job. It’s what we have to do,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And no matter what, we’ve got to play to a certain extent and a certain level and give everything we’ve got.”
It was the first game back for SGA after missing the previous four games with a left knee sprain. The third-year guard didn’t miss a beat upon his return as he not only cashed in the first points of the game for the Thunder, but also posted 13 first-half points while dishing out a team-high four assists. Gilgeous-Alexander’s contributions lifted the Thunder to an early 31-30 lead after the first quarter, but Memphis played to its characteristics as the league’s leader in points off of turnovers. The Grizzlies translated each of the Thunder’s miscues into transition scoring opportunities and by the end of the first half, the Thunder had turned the ball over 13 times which translated into 17 extra points for Memphis.
Even still, the Thunder entered into the second half trailing by only one point thanks to a hyper-efficient shooting performance — 50 percent from both the field and the 3-point line while cashing in a perfect 11-11 from the free throw line.
“Our offense was good despite the turnovers,” Daigneault said. “We shot the ball really well, generated good shots and the guys knock them down.”
“We were moving the ball well on offense and getting good penetration and kicking out to shooters and who were ready to shoot,” Thunder center Mike Muscala said who finished with a team-high fivemade 3-pointers.
Muscala, Théo Maledon and Darius Bazley all cashed in two 3-pointers each in the third frame to lift Oklahoma City to another 50-percent shooting performance from behind the arc. The trio would also be a part of the six-man Thunder contingent that scored in double-figures. All five starters, plus Muscala scored 10 points or more for the sixth time this season.
“We have basketball players on our team. When I say that I mean guys that can do multiple things on the floor: make shots, create for others, rebound and do little things,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Guys are just competitors.”
That competitiveness gave the Thunder a 1-point advantage to start the fourth quarter. Hard drives to the rim and attacks to the basket gave OKC valuable trips to the free throw line where they continued to convert.
However, the fourth quarter began to tilt back to the Grizzlies direction behind critical second-chance opportunities from Memphis’ center Jonas Valanciunas who leads the league in second chance points per game. Valanciunas carved out four offensive rebounds on the way to nine points in the final frame. Bolstering the Memphis momentum was third-year sharpshooter Grayson Allen who knocked down three 3-pointers on four attempts to close out the contest.