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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Clemente Almanza

Player grades: Thunder mount comeback in 108-105 win over Cavaliers

Pressuring Donovan Mitchell, the multi-time All-Star failed to cross halfcourt as he lost control of the ball for a game-sealing turnover.

Holding onto a three-point lead, the Oklahoma City Thunder escaped Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse with a stunning 108-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was only the second game of the season, but it felt much more.

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“It just comes down to trusting each other and what we can do out there,” Chet Holmgren said following the win. “We did a great job of that down the stretch of the game. We just got to continue that throughout the season.”

The win borders robbery as the Thunder finished the game on a 15-3 run after it looked like Evan Mobley slammed in the game-clinching dunk. The dunk awarded the Cavaliers a 102-93 lead with 1:56 left.

Instead of the Thunder settling for defeat after a tough second half saw them struggle to buy a bucket, OKC hunkered down and came away with the improbable win.

“I’m not surprised, there (were) definitely glimpses of this in previous times,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said about OKC’s 2-0 start. “There’s a contagiousness to this. They got a collective confidence that’s pretty impressive for any team.”

A trailing Holmgren — who collected a franchise-rookie record seven blocks — hit the top-of-the-key 3 to tie the game at 102 apiece with 1:03 left. On the next OKC possession, Lu Dort — who finishes with 25 points — grabbed the ball and hit on a running floater to recapture the lead.

On the immediate possession, Dort showed off his value as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league when he forced the hot-scoring Mitchell to take a highly-contested jumper that missed.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — who almost had his first game without free-throw attempts in nearly two years — sunk a pair of late free throws to seal the win and a stunning final two minutes.

After a strong first half where the Thunder built a 10-point lead, the Cavaliers exited the break with much better play and eventually built a lead as large as 10 points. A 63-point second half was led by Mitchell, who scored a game-high 43 points on 15-of-27 shooting.

For most of the second half, the Cavaliers did an excellent job at forcing the Thunder to play a low-scoring brand of basketball. Prior to the late 15-3 run, the Thunder shot 43% from the field for the second half and were forced to settle for contested jump shots in a stagnated offense. The offensive issues also extended to ball security, as OKC committed 18 turnovers.

The feeling around this game until the last two minutes felt like an inevitable OKC loss. The Cavaliers are a strong playoff contender and — even without Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen — posed a tough challenge.

If the Thunder would’ve lost this game, it wouldn’t have revealed any serious problems. It could’ve easily been shrugged off as a competitive loss to a playoff team.

Instead, the Thunder’s late run resulted in one of the more impressive OKC wins in recent history and continues to supply fuel for the evergrowing hype surrounding this team.

“Our compete level lifted us tonight,” Daigneault said. “I thought we were really, really competitive. Tough defensively — especially in the first half. And the great situational grit to hang in there. That was our best identity stretch of the game.”

Let’s look at Thunder player grades.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: A+

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

What does it say about Gilgeous-Alexander that it felt like he had a quiet game and then you look at the box score and realize he scored 34 points?

It probably says Gilgeous-Alexander being ranked as a top-eight player is justified when these types of performances have become another day at the office.

In 36 minutes, Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 34 points on 15-of-26 shooting, 11 rebounds, five steals and four rebounds. An absurd stat line.

What makes this performance even more impressive is the fact it took until the final four seconds of the game for Gilgeous-Alexander to attempt his first pair of free throws. Despite 16 shot attempts inside of the paint, the referees didn’t reward him with the usual amount of free-throw attempts he’s grown accustomed to.

This was a nice gut-it-out game by Gilgeous-Alexander. The jumper wasn’t there for him this game and despite that, he still turned in an extremely efficient scoring outing.

“We really want to win and we prioritize that over everything,” Gilgeous-Alexander said about their comeback win. “I think all 15 guys know that and we’re all willing to do what it takes.”

Chet Holmgren: A+

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After a laidback debut, Chet Holmgren quickly reminded folks why he is the crown jewel of OKC’s rebuild.

Holmgren was phenomenal in his first of many matchups against fellow seven-foot defensive stalwart Evan Mobley. In 31 minutes, he had 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting, 13 rebounds and seven blocks — which is a franchise rookie record. He went 3-of-4 from 3 and 3-of-4 from the free-throw line.

“First game, I had zero blocks and four rebounds. I thought that was unlike myself,” Holmgren said about his franchise-record performance. “I hold myself to a standard and I felt like that was unacceptable.”

On the other end, Holmgren held Mobley to 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting and 15 rebounds.

At one point, Holmgren had five blocks in 14 minutes. An instance rate that will certainly help his averages following no blocks in his debut.

The sequence of the night also arguably belongs to Holmgren. After blocking Mobley, he quickly grabbed the rebound, pushed the pace and found Cason Wallace for a corner 3. That two-possession run shows off the unique skillset Holmgren possesses that made him the No. 2 pick in his draft class.

Hitting timely buckets in close games also probably helped him be a top-two pick. The biggest bucket of the night for Holmgren was from the perimeter, as the seven-footer hit a trailing three to officially tie the game at 102 apiece.

It was a nice finish to an awesome second game for Holmgren as he awaits to make his home debut after over a year of anticipation.

“We’re just excited that we were able to come away with the win tonight,” Holmgren said. “Executed down the stretch. I think it was a great learning moment for us.”

Lu Dort: A+

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of talk in the offseason centered around Lu Dort’s shot volume needing to decrease, but nights like tonight are reminders of why his willingness to shoot the ball can be a benefit.

With Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey struggling — the duo combined for 16 points on 5-of-22 shooting — Dort picked up the scoring load in this comeback win.

In 39 minutes, Dort finished with 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting and went 3-of-4 from 3. He also shot 4-of-6 from the free-throw line.

As mentioned earlier, the two biggest possessions of the game involved Dort. His floater gave OKC the go-ahead lead and his stout 1-on-1 defense on a hot Mitchell essentially sealed the win.

“It’s good that it happens early in the season like that,” Dort said. “Those type of games that come down to the wire. It’s huge how we got to keep our composure.”

He managed to do both while playing with five fouls for the majority of the fourth quarter. Dort’s a polarizing figure, no doubt about it, but these types of games justify his importance to the team.

“I’m one of the best defenders in the NBA,” Dort said. “I train for those types of moments. He’s a really tough cover, he’s a really great player… I don’t know much he had, but it was tough. It was tough. At least it was not easy.”

Cason Wallace: B

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder didn’t get much from their bench as it only produced 17 points. Nine of those points came from Cason Wallace, who is 2-for-2 this season with nice games.

In 19 minutes off the bench, Wallace had nine points on 3-of-4 shooting and two rebounds. The Thunder needed every single one of those points in their three-point win.

The 19-year-old rookie did an exceptional job at picking up the slack from the lack of bench production, most notably Isaiah Joe, who had five points on 2-of-10 shooting and just 1-of-7 from 3.


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