By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com
After a fourth quarter barrage where the Thunder played its best basketball of the night against the Brooklyn Nets, and perhaps its best basketball on the four-game road trip overall, OKC hit the locker room, heading home with a 112-102 victory in hand.
The win was the third in four games this week on the road and the 10th in its last 15 games, but this recent run of success was set up by the grounding philosophies the Thunder has been employing for many years running. Those guideposts will be what the Thunder lives by moving forward too, not the recent results on the scoreboard.
In the postgame press conference inside Barclays Center, Head Coach Mark Daigneault referenced a book by Don Miguel Ruiz called “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” in response to a question about the Thunder’s recent surge in the standings.
“It’s all process oriented. There’s a book called ‘The Four Agreements’ and one of them is Don’t Make Assumptions. It’s a good thing to live by. We just don’t assume anything. We just kind of do our best. That’s another one. Always Do Your Best,” Daigneault said. “Be Impeccable with Your Word, Always do Your Best, Don’t Make Assumptions and Don’t Take Things Personal. Good book.”
On this four-game trip, the Thunder displayed all four agreements, in ways that lean into the core principles it has imbued into players from the moment they step inside the walls of the organization.
Outside observers have prognosticated about the Thunder from before the start of the season, and likely anticipated a wide variety of outcomes about this challenging four-game Eastern Conference road trip against four playoff-contending squads. Outscoring those four foes by a combined 42 points, the Thunder may have defied external expectations, but all the team saw in front of it before each tipoff was another opponent upon which to sharpen its blade.
“It kind of is instilled in us and the only way we know how to play. It’s kind of a habit now and now you’re seeing the skill add up, camaraderie add up and experience in NBA add up,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who played at his typical All-Star-caliber level all week. “It all started there with us – playing hard every night. That’s one thing that the coaching staff has been like hard on from the get go… Playing hard every night is gonna be something that we do no matter what, no matter who’s on the team.”
On the flip side of the expectations game, the Miami Heat was missing a few key players from its starting lineup, DeMar DeRozan didn’t play for the Chicago Bulls and the Nets were missing Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons. The Philadelphia 76ers were fully healthy, yet that was the squad on the trip that the Thunder beat by the widest margin, 19 points. Instead of making assumptions about the trip as a whole or the individual opponents based on pedigree or available personnel, the Thunder kept its blinders on and stayed in the moment.
“Every day we try to get better and every game we try to do what we can to win the game,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “Because we’ve gotten better as a team and as individuals, we’ve won more games. That’s all we focus on and we’ll see where that takes us.”
As young, talented players have entered the Thunder organization for the last decade and a half, the baseline expectations have had nothing to do with field-goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio or blocked shots. The evaluation and emphasis in formative years has been all about one thing – effort. Playing hard is partially second nature, but it’s also a skill that needs to developed and a muscle that has to be built up to do it every game, night after night, for all four quarters against the world’s best players.
Rookie Jalen Williams’ road trip has been a prime example of the Thunder honing that tenacity in a young player, and the roots of his relentlessness stretched back to last week in Orlando, in a moment where he stumbled. Against the Magic, on the second night of a brutal back-to-back, Williams didn’t have the juice needed to compete against NBA competition.
Before the game Friday in Chicago, the Thunder coaching staff played a clip from the Orlando game of excellent helpside defense that led to a runout 3-pointer – an example of what Williams and the team are capable of on in adverse conditions, like against the Bulls 18 hours after a late-night arrival from Philadelphia. Williams played a team-high 34 minutes in the 124-110 win over the Bulls, and sprinted through the finish line in the fourth quarter as he snapped up rebounds and finished strong at the rim during a 22-point, eight-rebound performance.
On Sunday, Williams showed he could play with that same fierce streak even if shots weren’t falling. He once again competed on the glass, snapping up six rebounds to go with three assists, a block and a steal, even when nothing was going his way on the offensive end. Williams went 0-for-9 from the field, but that didn’t deter his defensive engagement and ability to connect the team on offense, and it helped contribute to the double-digit come-from-behind win.
“The fact that (Williams) plays the right way and he competes the way he does makes it very easy to play through tough games,” said Daigneault. “You’re not gonna play perfect every night, but you can compete and play inside the team every night and he does that.”
“Guys are starting to understand now how to play 48 minutes and when we do it, we play really good basketball,” guard Josh Giddey noted.
Don’t Take Things Personal
Fourth-year forward Darius Bazley didn’t see a single minute in the Thunder’s game at Miami. The next day at practice, he was not only intentional about each minute he spent on the floor, he was also convivially both competing with and encouraging his teammates. You might have thought he had played his normal 15-20 minutes the night before, not riding a streak of four-straight games without any minutes. Instead of resentment, there was gratitude.
“It’s not about me, and it never will be,” Bazley said. “I’m always invested in the team, always invested in my teammates.”
“The best thing about our team is the guy is always excited for the next guy,” said Giddey. “That’s a way to have a really good culture, a really good environment, and it’s a fun group to play in when guys are celebrating up on the bench cheering regardless of who’s playing well, who’s playing minutes, whatever is happening.”
Bazley, who has now played in 213 career games, including 118 starts, was primed and ready to jump right into the fray in Philadelphia against the massive, physical front line of the 76ers. He made some critical plays as the Thunder jumped on the 76ers in the second quarter, then in Chicago he just kept the scoreboard moving with physical downhill attacks that resulted in free throws. Later in the game, he again played in a straight line, using a left to right crossover that resulted in a huge three-point play. Bazley was again in the rotation on Sunday in Brooklyn, playing the entire fourth quarter and allowing the Thunder to close out the game by switching everything defensively and forcing the Nets to go 1-on-1 instead of zipping the ball around.
“Baze has been amazing this whole trip. He obviously wasn’t playing for a bit. That’s tough for a guy that’s played so many games, so many minutes,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He kept his head on and was there for the team. We needed him. He was super vocal. Then when he got an opportunity, he’s ready.”
Be Impeccable with Your Word
In the ocean that is the Thunder’s long-term goals for the organization’s attempt to achieve sustained, extended success, this recent four-game road trip was but a wave cresting up above the horizon line. To get to where this team wants to go, the most crucial factor is for the players, coaches and staff to continue to follow through on their stated goals and remain humble in victory just as they would remain resolute in the face of adversity.
“I don’t think we’re satisfied at all,” Gilgeous-Alexander said after the win on Sunday. “We know what kind of team we want to be. Until we get there we’re not gonna be satisfied. Where we’re at right now, we don’t think we’re there. We know we’re headed in the right direction.”
“We know we’re getting better,” added Gilgeous-Alexander. “I think guys are kind of getting addicted to the feeling and are just trying to be better every day and continue the growth.”
With the results turning in the Thunder’s favor over this recent stretch, the team isn’t changing tune from what it has preached both internally and publicly over the last two-plus years. Instead, OKC is doubling down on the approach, and letting the work guide them down their winding path.
“There’s a way of operating that we’re very confident in and that we’re just going to bet on,” said Daigneault. “That’s having, first of all, competitive guys that are team guys that are young and developing, helping them grow through experiences, teaching them professionalism, having a really good environment and trying to play a style that scales forward. When the outcomes come, they come.”
The Thunder turns the page from the road trip and heads home for a quick one-game stand at Paycom Center against the Indiana Pacers. The next task for the Thunder comes on Monday, when guys will be charged with a sneaky professional duty – getting rest, eating well, taking care of their bodies and demonstrating personal responsibility when at home and free to do as they please.
Then comes practice on Tuesday, another chance to tick forward in terms of skill, connectivity and execution. Putting one foot in front of the other and staying grounded in its process is how the Thunder will achieve long term success, and the team has a chance to prove that again this week.
“We’re obviously playing well right now,” Daigneault said. “We’ve gotten a little bit of success here with our head down, so we’re not going to pick our head up and start looking around. We’re just going to keep our head down and keep doing it.”
“It’s positive signs,” added Giddey, who averaged 22.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.3 assists on the four-game trip. “For a young team, we’re making improvements. There’s such a long way to go, but we’re headed in the right direction. The morale around the group is really high. We’re feeling good, but you can’t look too far in the future. It’s one game at a time and we have to go back it up on Wednesday against Indiana.”