The Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in a unique situation on Wednesday — playing their game against the Memphis Grizzlies on a near whim. As a result of inclimate weather in Oklahoma City, the Thunder boarded a game-day flight that resulted in players arriving to the FedEx Forum at 6:15 p.m. — less than two hours before tip-off. In Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s return to the rotation (and Al Horford’s absence), Oklahoma City’s lack of preparation proved costly, falling to the Grizzlies 122-113. Wednesday’s loss marks the fourth loss in the last five games for Oklahoma City, as they sit at 14th in the West sitting at 11-17. With the win, Memphis notched the .500 mark at an even 12-12 looking right outside the top-eight seeds ranking 9th in the West.
Oklahoma City showed a clear change of pace in the first, transitioning back to more high-ball oriented — drive-and-dish style basketball, as opposed to the more position-less — off-ball play highlighted without Shai. As a byproduct of the Thunder reverting play, their first 6-of-10 shots came from downtown, and once the Grizzlies bridged that gap, they attacked inside for 11 free throws — 5 of which came from Shai. The Thunder’s constant change of pace paid dividends, as they led through one 31-30. Oklahoma City’s second quarter can be summed up with hot shooting — mixed with costly mistakes.
The Thunder continued to shoot red-hot both levels in the second period shooting 5-of-10 from both two-pointers and threes, but they only tallied 25 points. The pitfall to the Thunder’s shot-making ability? Turnovers. Oklahoma City coughed up 8 turnovers in the segment that resulted in 7 Grizzlies steals and 11 points off turnovers — for perspective, the Thunder racked up 17 points off turnovers the entire game. These costly errors on the offensive end cost the Thunder the lead as the Grizzlies flipped the script to take a one-point 57-56 lead by half.
The Thunder found open shot after open shot to kick off the third, while defensively the unit was engaged as ever in creating havoc on defense, highlighted by Isaiah Roby jarring Jonas Valanciunas of the ball in the post — but it didn’t matter. Despite having the looks, Oklahoma City shanked their first seven shots whilst the Grizzlies attacked inside to the tune of 4-of-8 shooting to jumpstart a 10-2 lead in the first four minutes, with the Thunder’s two points coming at the line. The Thunder swung right back with a Maledon three and Lu Dort and-1, but history repeated itself as Memphis charged a 7-0 run. Eventually, the Thunder’s shaky shooting eased up, hitting 6-of-12 threes to chip the hole down to one at the quarters close at 86-85, and after Memphis Head Coach Taylor Jenkins mouthed off to officials in the intermission, Oklahoma City got a technical free throw to knot the game at 86.
Oklahoma City took their first lead in the half seconds into the fourth via a Justin Jackson free-throw, but lackadaisical play on defense led to a 9-1 response from the Grizz. This tangent evolved into a 20-3 run at its peak, giving the Thunder a double-digit beast to slay in seven minutes. Oklahoma City gave Memphis a good run for their money pushing Taylor Jenkins to his second technical foul and immediate ejection from the game with 25 seconds to go, but it was the classic “saved by the bell” case. Memphis had a seven-point lead when former Tulsa 66ers Head Coach Darko Rajakovic was entrusted to first-in-command, and a simple keep away play from Ja Morant was all that was needed.
This was the second game in a row the Thunder seemingly poofed major opponent leads in thin air, with the Blazers’ 24-point advantage on Tuesday and now a 15-point edge from the Grizzlies — and it’s no surprise as to why. Oklahoma City netted six men in double figures in the contest, including all five starters. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t appear to lose a step in his return, posting 22 points (8-of-18 FG), 3 rebounds, and 6 assists. SGA didn’t find his strides immediately from the field, but his tenacious efforts to force fouls inside garnered the 22-year-old 8 attempts at the line. Mike Muscala needed zero assistance, piping together his 3rd 20-piece of the year with 21 points and 3 rebounds off the bench. For Muscala, he finished the night on 7-of-11 shooting while going an impressive 5-of-9 from distance. Theo Maledon played as an extension to Muscala’s craftsmanship outside, hammering out 14 points on 4-of-5 three-point shooting to support his 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals across 33 minutes. It took no time for the rookie to play in to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s style of play as the majority of his triples came off of catch-and-shoots with his counterpart guard. Darius Bazley kept Vegas angsty in this game, bouncing-back yet again with 18 points (7-of-14 FG), 7 rebounds, and 2 assists. Baze asserted himself from the get-go on the inside, capturing the awes of fans with a side-step layup in the first half. He took the initiative to push him game deep, matching Maledon’s total of 4 made shots on 8 attempts. Isaiah Roby held up through the thick of things with Valanciunas, etching up 10 points (4-of-9 FG), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocks across 23 minutes. Roby’s clear athletic advantage over Jonas became apparent as he was to speedy to cover from outside, but more importantly this lack of coverage led to wide open passes to generate looks. This was displayed when the team huddled in to produce 25 assists on the night, marking the eighth consecutive game the group met the 20-assist threshold.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (11-17) will have another chance to spread the love and get back into victory formation as they face off against a team they defeated earlier this week in the Giannis-led Milwaukee Bucks (16-13) on Friday.