ORLANDO- Injuries can torpedo any team, no matter how deep they appear on paper.
The Oklahoma City Thunder learned this lesson first hand in their 101-128 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Missing five of their six top scorers, the Thunder were especially thin in the ball handling department.
With Dennis Schroder still tending to the birth of his child, Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan announced Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would also miss the contest with a right calf contusion. The injuries Chris Paul and Devon Hall as the only point guards available for Donovan.
Paul saw the game as a great chance for the younger guys on the team to get some meaningful minutes.
“There’s nothing like confidence, there’s nothing like real game minutes,” Paul said. “You practice but nothing can simulate the game so it’s always good to give guys, you know, those real minutes in games.”
The Thunder responded well from the tip, jumping out to a 37-23 first quarter lead. Rookie Darius Bazley looked to be the biggest beneficiary of the depleted roster, pouring in 12 first quarter points a day after setting a new career high in scoring.
Bazley was hailed by his teammates in the leadup to the season restart, drawing compliments on how he handled the time off physically and how he had taken a leap forward.
The hard work has manifested itself on the offense end of the floor, but Bazley said he’s more proud of the strides he has taken on defense.
“Defensively I’m a lot more vocal,” Bazley said. “That helps tremendously, just being able to communicate. That’s the biggest thing that I’m proud of is that I’m starting to talk on defense.”
“I just want to keep that going.”
The Thunder rookie maintained his momentum from yesterday, finishing the game with 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting, also adding 10 rebounds and three assists to complete the double-double. The back-to-back 20 point performances from Bazley marks the first Thunder rookie to post such displays since James Harden and Russel Westbrook.
Things were made more complicated for Bazley and the Thunder in the second quarter with the arrival of Suns starlet Deandre Ayton.
The Suns proceeded to outscore Oklahoma City 42-27 in the second quarter, and 105-64 the rest of the game as a whole.
“I thought their defensive intensity really picked up and they pressured us,” Donovan said of the second quarter woes. “We had 11 turnovers in the first half and certainly we were fortunate we didn’t give them as many points.”
As the game got away from the Thunder, Paul only logged seven and a half second half minutes, clearing the way for more players to get touches as the primary ball handler.
Oklahoma City never looked in danger of mounting a second half comeback from this point, as the offense was stagnant and looked unorganized for vast stretches.
“Some of that I think has to be put on me,” Donovan said. “I wanted to try to give some of those other guys an opportunity to handle the ball and deal with some pressure.”
Hamidou Diallo and Deonte Burton were called upon to run the offense, as well as Bazley late in the fourth quarter.
Bazley logged the only assist for the young trio in the second half.
Donovan said he was pleased with how his team handled being put into uncomfortable circumstances late.
“I think that the experience they got playing against that kind of pressure was good for them,” Donovan said. “For the most part they tried to do a really really good job.”
Oklahoma City will hope to have all hands on deck when they face off against the Miami Heat at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
Hopefully the younger guys will be able to take the minutes against the Suns and grow, since the team was there to talk the guys through the entire game, Paul said.
“The good thing about our team is we talk all day long,” he said. “We were just talking about translating, you know, they get to observe a lot.”
“Now you put it into action so it was cool to see everybody put things together.”