DALLAS — They do call it Luka magic after all.
And with what felt like simple reads and the consistent wave of his hands, Luka Doncic challenged a listless OKC squad as the Mavericks handed the Thunder a 146-111 loss — its largest of the season.
He wasted no time putting new teammates, P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford, to use. He found Gafford for lobs and short rolls. He found Washington with skip passes. He found every crease, every window, and every tough shot in his arsenal en route to 32 points, eight rebounds and nine assists.
There was no sorcery from the Thunder. No enchantment. OKC played Saturday’s game with a lifeless touch, not a golden one.
“They were just a better team tonight from start to finish,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They played better, played harder. More sense of urgency.”
The urgency was immediate. Doncic’s ice-breaking outburst, with nods and shrugs and winks toward the bench in between, saw him hit three straight 3s. OKC’s defensive crowds hardly mattered.
Doncic peered through them like glass bottles. He wiggled through them like a caterpillar. When the fight was grounded, Doncic went aerial through Gafford. When the Thunder tried to limit Dallas’ shooters, Doncic and backcourt mate Kyrie Irving skipped through the lane so often that Rafer Alston probably smiled somewhere.
Defensive rotations became helpless. It forfeited 66 paint points by the end of the night and saw the Mavericks shoot 58.2% from the floor — hardly a formula success.
For a while, OKC was on the doorstep of a near 30-point deficit. It’s almost impossible to come back from that. Almost.
But just when it felt like OKC’s trimming of a gargantuan deficit could end up with its own lead, Dallas earned trips to the free-throw line that had it bathing in momentum it never quite lost.
“They were just more aggressive than we were,” rookie Cason Wallace said. “That pretty much sums up this game.”
The book on Giddey
Josh Giddey wasn’t the sole reason the Thunder lost on Saturday.
Teams defending him with obnoxious disrespect isn’t new anymore. It’s law. It’s the way the Thunder, a team so good at so much that teams must desperately find its loopholes, will continue to live life.
Dallas didn’t abandon that approach. If anything, it did it as aggressively as anyone has.
“We’ve seen it all year, so it’s nothing new for us,” coach Mark Daigneault said. “We want to have a diversity of attacks against it, which includes the cutting and includes using him as a screener depending on who the five is. We thought that was effective today. And then he’s got to shoot with confidence when he has the open shots. (The gameplan) was effective today for a number of reasons outside of just him … We’ve attacked it well in the past, so we gotta keep learning from it and growing.”
OKC did try to use Giddey in different ways. Just as it has all season while navigating new schemes against him. In the same third-quarter span where the Mavericks piled on momentum, the Thunder used him as a short-roll playmaker and a backside cutter. One ended up being a look in the corner, the other ended in a trip to the line for Giddey.
Giddey, who finished 3 of 14 for 11 points, wasn’t acting alone when subject to Dallas’ dismissal. Lu Dort also received similar freedom, as has been the case several times this season, shooting 2 for 7 from the field and 1 for 6 from 3. Giddey wasn’t Saturday’s only — or perhaps even most vital — issue.
There was the lack of energy from the Thunder that magnified those early third-quarter Giddey possessions to an unfathomable degree. The excessive fouling. A generally uncharacteristic level of incompetence defensively. The things that made every Doncic read, every Dallas transition opportunity all the more painful.
Giddey’s offensive deficiencies did strip the Thunder of the time and possessions it probably could’ve used to fight back, though. To shave a lead that’d ballooned beyond normal reach far earlier.
While it all ends with Giddey being open, teams aren’t all defending it the same way. Plenty teams will put their four on Chet and let the center roam. Utah was at its most effective zoning. Toronto, perhaps Giddey’s best game of the season, loaded up on Gilgeous-Alexander’s drives as much as anyone.
There will almost always be tweaks to the coverages, which means there are likely still pictures defensively that OKC and Giddey still haven’t seen.
Assuming it’s possible, the Thunder’s best plan of action in using will come when all the pictures have been seen.
It makes the postseason plans for Giddey interesting. OKC is still finding ways to maximize the point forward as an off-ball player — a necessary reality with two on-ball wizards like SGA and Jalen Williams. It’s still trying to find the right dose of him as a roller and cutter. To evoke his most redeeming qualities with this core.
All it can depend on is the fact that there have been good days.
“He had some open looks,” Gilgeous Alexander said. “Missed some, made some. That’s the game of basketball. They go in, sometimes they don’t. Josh was left open against Toronto, (he) played his balls off.”
Chet Holmgren tried to recollect the dates.
In Oklahoma City versus the Nuggets during Week 1. A loss in Detroit a couple weeks earlier. An outright bludgeoning on Saturday in Dallas.
He’d wondered why he’d been asked about what effect afternoon tip offs might have on a typically energized and vibrant Thunder team. Then the results dawned on him.
“I can see why you asked that,” said Holmgren, who totaled 13 points and 12 rebounds.
It’s a strange phenomenon, but the Thunder, which plays the Kings at the same time Sunday, has lost all three of its afternoon games by a combined 84 points.
Holmgren, despite his scientist tag delivered by Mark Daigneault earlier in the season, didn’t want to dive into the science behind it. Gilgeous-Alexander, the Daigneault-dubbed artist, wouldn’t deny it.
“I try to tell myself ‘no,’ but it’s hard to deny the facts,” he said.
A lack of energy? A lack of urgency? A lack of feng shui? Holmgren wouldn’t speculate about what he called a “wormhole.” He did point to the differences, though.
Changes in film time and shootaround. The shift of an entire day’s routine. One thing Holmgren didn’t follow with: A cover-up.
“That’s no excuse,” Holmgren said. “We have to have the same preparation and mindset coming in every single game no matter what time it’s at, where it is, whatever factors are going on. Whatever is happening in the world, we got to be ready to play.”
First appeared on www.oklahoman.com