How Far Can The Thunder Take This?

In between the Denver Nuggets advancing to the second round and the Boston Celtics dominating again, the unkillable, feisty Oklahoma City Thunder wrapped up a commanding sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans. After an anxious Game 1 win at home, they won the final games by a combined 59 points, holding the Pelicans to 92 points or fewer in all four wins. That bird don’t fly no more.

It was the sort of thing that tends to happen when a one seed gets to play an eight seed without its best player, though as the bulk of the Thunder’s roster had never played in the playoffs before, and as they exactly have one big (who has the frame and body density of bamboo), slamming the door shut with such force is admirable. They’ve passed the first test, so the operative question is now: Exactly how far can they take it? That depends on how newly minted Coach of the Year Mark Daigneault answers the somewhat tricky question of whom the team will close games with.

Four of the five spots are set in stone: Chet Holmgren, tasked with protecting the rim, picking, and popping; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slithering around and scoring 1 million points; Jalen Williams yes-anding everything SGA does; and Lu Dort acting as a roadblock against the other team’s best player. Perhaps the team’s greatest strength, more impressive than the three-point shooting or the aggressive defense-into-transition machine thing the Thunder have going in front of Holmgren’s rim protection, is their coherence. They’re as deep as any team in the playoffs, capable of toggling between a few distinct looks without having to change the way they play at all. No matter how many or how few of their various Williamses are on the court, the Thunder will fly at the rim, keep the ball moving, and get in your face on defense.

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Daigneault has built a beautiful machine and he has a bunch of solid options to close games with, but the Thunder are going to be tested more seriously in further rounds by opponents who will be able to find and mercilessly exploit their weak spots. The Pelicans weren’t able to find them, yet they exist. So who should Daigneault go with?

It will probably be matchup-dependent, though the candidate who starts in the fifth spot and played the most minutes in the first round is Josh Giddey. The Aussie probably won’t hit 50 percent of his threes on good volume in any other series; it seemed against the Pelicans that every one of the 18 threes he cashed was wide open. Giddey’s rebounding is critical for the Thunder, especially against bigger teams, though he’s the weakest shooter in the fifth-spot candidate pool and opposing teams don’t guard him. That means fewer good lanes for drivers, more limbs to pass through, and more bodies in the paint to snag rebounds. Giddey was so good against New Orleans, hitting his threes and cutting smartly out of the corner for a bunch of cheap layups, and his passing flayed the Pelicans’ defense. He played the entire fourth quarter of Game 4, a quarter the Thunder won 27-18, and as such, he has the strongest context-free case.

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In the only other close game of the New Orleans series, Daigneault closed with Cason Wallace. The rookie is a dogged on-ball defender, and the version of the Thunder where Dort and Wallace take turns hounding the other team’s lead ballhandlers seems terrifying to play against, with SGA freed to hunt for steals against easier matchups. Wallace’s shooting percentages are fine, though he doesn’t shoot very much, and I don’t think anyone expects or really wants a 20-year-old rookie taking the game in his hands and hoisting 12 threes if the matchup math dictates those are the simplest shots to engineer. Teams will at least guard him, and he can put the ball on the floor. In Game 1, Wallace held his ground against CJ McCollum on the final play, poking the ball loose and disrupting what McCollum wanted to do. I don’t think the moment is too big for Wallace, and in the case of a Mavericks series with Dort on Luka Doncic duty and Kyrie Irving cooking, I could see Wallace stepping up.

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Wallace’s offense-first counterpart is Isaiah Joe, a sharpshooter who has rounded out his off-the-dribble game to become a real threat when teams close out too hard on him. Joe didn’t have a great first round, playing the fewest minutes of this cohort and struggling with his shot. When the going got tough in huge games during the regular season and Daigneault was forced to get Giddey off the floor so SGA could play offense, Joe was his guy. He keeps defenses honest like nobody else in this group. The flipside here is that he’s teeny-tiny and liable to be bullied by heftier guards, which is to say by anyone still playing minutes in these playoffs.

Those three guys have clear strengths and weaknesses. Not so much with Aaron Wiggins (no relation to Andrew), whom I wrote about in our newsletter last week (subscribe today!). Wiggins is a two-way wing without any weaknesses. He fills every gap, hitting threes, dropping dimes, and attacking relentlessly. You have to guard him, and you can try to attack him, but it won’t work—not well enough in any case to really send the Thunder panicking.

Every other team left in the West is rugged, experienced, and capable of picking at whatever weaknesses the Thunder opt for. Maybe I’m deluded, but I really do think they can win the conference. SGA is playing so well right now, and nobody besides the Wolves’ guys can really destroy him—and even then, he averaged 34 points against them this season. Every team will be bigger than the Thunder, but no team will be faster. I can’t wait to see them really get pushed.

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