OKLAHOMA CITY- Whittled down to the minimum eight active players to participate in the game, the Oklahoma City Thunder still had a prime chance to top the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Friday night.
Tied with 25.7 seconds left in the game, Hamidou Diallo stole the Minnesota inbound pass. Instead of holding for the game’s final shot, Diallo pushed the pace, missing an out of control layup and handing the Timberwolves new life.
On the other end of the floor, point guard D’Angelo Russell buried the Thunder, nailing a deep triple with under three seconds on the clock to finish OKC off 106-103.
Diallo had one last chance to send the game to overtime, but missed his potential game leveling three as time expired.
“That was like a high effort game,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said after the game. “Played really hard, I thought we competed really hard.
“Really pleased with the competitive spirit of the team.”
Minnesota was really able to gain the upper hand in the second half due to their 3-point sharpshooting. After the break, the Timberwolves knocked down 11-of-20 second half 3’s, the most important of which coming off Russell’s fingertips in the closing moments.
“I thought we could have [closed out on 3’s] a little harder at times,” Daigneault said. “I don’t know that it was tired legs as much as we have to continue to trust our help in those situations.
“It’s a venerable position when you’re closing out to a guy who can shoot and drive, and sometimes you tend to come up short because you want to protect against getting beat, but that’s why you have your help.”
The idea that OKC let one slip is a minor miracle in itself considering the task the Thunder were staring down at the opening tip.
With the absences of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and George Hill, Oklahoma City was not only shorthanded but missing three starters outright. Throw in Theo Maledon, who has replaced Hill in the starting lineup, and it’s impressive the Thunder found a way to be in the game late.
“It’s tough tonight with eight players, but it’s always next man up mentality,” Kenrich Williams said. “Overall this is a good game to build off of, and I think we’ll respond well tomorrow.”
The duo of Diallo and Al Horford had a lot to do with why OKC was able to come so close to a victory.
Despite his pair of misses in the last 30 seconds, Diallo was a major bright spot filling in at point guard. Dishing out a career high 10 assists,
“The fact that you can put the ball in his hands that much over the course of a game, I mean that’s not something he would have handled as well in past seasons,” Daigneault said of Diallo. “It’s certainly growth. I thought he did a good job of moving it tonight.”
Also adding 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, Diallo logged his first ever point and assist double-double.
“This year in general, [Diallo’s] been getting an opportunity I feel like to handle the ball more, make plays and do different things,” Horford said. “I think it’s great. It’s great for his confidence. It’s great for him understanding how he needs to play and how he impacts the game.
“He can not only attack, but he can create for others and we saw that side of him tonight.”
Horford did everything he could to will his team to a victory. Posting a season high 26 points, the veteran big man led all scorers on 10-of-19 shooting, including 3-of-6 from 3. Horford also dealt eight assists, allowing the offense to flow through him with so many different pieces trying to fit around him. As a whole, the Thunder ended with 28 assists as a team.
“With some of these young guys, that energy kind of rubs off,” Horford said. “You get excited and you want to play that way, so it’s been a lot of fun.
“It’s just great, being here in Oklahoma, the way the organization sets everything up… everything about going in here I feel like not only myself but we all feel pretty good here. We feel comfortable.”
Entering the night, the Thunder and the Timberwolves were the two worst teams in the NBA per their NET rating, a measure of a team’s offensive rating per 100 possessions minus their defensive rating per 100 possessions. Despite the loss, the Thunder proved they are still a cut above league-worst Minnesota.
Thanks to one of the odd quirks of this season’s NBA schedule, the Thunder won’t have to wait long to attempt to right their wrongs on the evening.
The two teams match up again in less than 24 hours from the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Tipoff for round two of Oklahoma City and Minnesota is slated for 7 p.m. Saturday evening.