OKLAHOMA CITY- When the game is on the line, the Oklahoma City Thunder feel at home.
The Sacramento Kings were the latest victims of the NBA’s best Clutch Time team, falling to the Thunder 112-108.
A game enters Clutch Time when there are under five minutes remaining and either team leads by five points or less.
After a furious third quarter comeback, the Thunder again found themselves in a battle down the stretch.
Once the five minute mark hit in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City again played their best basketball.
With 4:49 remaining, Danilo Gallinari hit a three to put the Thunder up by a point.
Oklahoma City never looked back.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan praised his team’s mental steadiness down the stretch in close games this season.
“I think they’ve always been very, very poised,” he said.
“They don’t really panic or get emotional, they stay pretty locked in on what we need to do in the next possession.”
Forty of Oklahoma City’s 59 games have been decided in Clutch Time, the most of any team in the NBA.
“We’ve played so many close games all season long,” Thunder guard Chris Paul said.
“We know what we need to do.”
The game would not have been close down the stretch without a huge run by Oklahoma City at the end of the third quarter.
Sacramento’s nine point halftime lead had ballooned to 18 points until Hamidou Diallo checked into the game for the first time.
With Diallo’s introduction, Oklahoma City tightened up their defense, sparking a 24-7 run to end the quarter to pull the game within one point.
“[Diallo] coming into the game changed the flow of the game for us,” teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.
“He brought a lot of energy defensively first and then offensively he did his thing.”
Though Diallo didn’t score, he did almost everything else for Oklahoma City, pulling down three rebounds and adding a steal and a block.
“[Diallo] was amazing,” Paul said. “His energy doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.”
All of Diallo’s almost 11 minutes came in the second half, but he had no trouble adjusting to the flow of the game.
“I’m just trying to stay ready no matter what situation I’m in,” Diallo said.
“I’m just going to go out there and do what I do and that’s bring the energy every night and guard the best player on the floor.”
Oklahoma City will have no time to revel in the win, as they immediately will travel to face the Milwaukee Bucks on the second night of this back-to-back.
The Bucks enter with the best record in the league, but Oklahoma City is riding high as the Thunder and the Bucks both boast the best records in the NBA since Thanksgiving.
“Obviously a great team,” he said. “The fortunate part of this back-to-back is that we’ve already played them once.”
Donovan said the Thunder will be able to take some lessons from the first meeting between the two teams, easing the difficulties of scouting a team on zero days’ rest.
The Thunder pushed the Bucks in their early-season matchup, losing 121-119 in November.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe led the way for Milwaukee in a game where the Thunder had to make due without Steven Adams.
Though Oklahoma City left the Kings game injury-free, it is uncertain if Danilo Gallinari will play against the Bucks.
Gallinari has not played on the second night of a back-to-back the last five times for the Thunder, but Donovan declined to say whether Gallinari would be available against the Bucks.
Pulling out a win will be an uphill battle with no rest against the league’s most dominant team, but Oklahoma City does enter with one advantage.
Milwaukee has played the fewest games in the NBA to enter Clutch Time — just 17 games.
If the game comes down to the wire, Gilgeous-Alexander said Oklahoma City’s experience will help guide them.
“We’ve just been in the situation a lot and we know what to do.”
Tip-off against the Bucks is at 7 p.m., but Countdown to Tip-Off begins at 6 p.m. on 107.7 The Franchise.