Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Clemente Almanza

Player grades: Thunder survive Pelicans with low-scoring 94-92 Game 1 win

OKLAHOMA CITY — Trying to create separation, CJ McCollum lost his handle and couldn’t get past Cason Wallace in the final seconds. Instead of a clean look to force overtime, he heaved a desperate 3-pointer that clanked off the rim. The final buzzer sounded and OKC avoided disaster.

The Oklahoma City Thunder won a thriller in Game 1 over the New Orleans Pelicans with a tight 94-92 win to go up 1-0 in the series. The back-and-forth contest saw both squads exchange leads in the final minutes.

“It was a tough game. I thought the defensive physically, really the whole game, was really, really good,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said on the win. “We really held them to tough shots. They made a couple of tough ones, they obviously rebounded some of them. I thought the defense was really, really good tonight.”

It was an ugly start for both teams as they were tied at 17 apiece after the first quarter. That continued in the second frame as both squads tallied 26 points and entered halftime deadlocked at 43 points even.

Coming out of the break, both teams continued to exchange baskets. A 17-7 run by the Thunder finally created some space as they led by eight points with a little over four minutes left in the third frame. The Pelicans immediately answered with nine straight points to create a 66-65 advantage with less than two minutes left.

The Thunder had a strong final two minutes as they entered the fourth quarter with a 74-68 advantage. A 17-6 second-half run by OKC bled over to the final frame and the Thunder enjoyed a nine-point lead a little over one minute into the fourth quarter.

As the active crowd created momentum for the Thunder, it looked like OKC was on the verge of blowing it open after a stout opening three quarters. Instead, the Pelicans remained resilient and responded with a 9-3 run to cut the Thunder’s lead to 82-79 with less than nine minutes left in the game.

Ending a near-two-minute scoring drought, Herb Jones swished in a catch-and-shoot right-wing 3-pointer to tie the contest at 88 apiece with four minutes left. Soon after, Brandon Ingram’s transition basket gave New Orleans a 90-88 lead with 3:34 left following an OKC turnover.

Suddenly, the superb active crowd turned silent as the short-handed Pelicans survived the Thunder’s momentum and had a two-point lead. OKC called a timeout and both teams returned to a drought. They combined to miss the next three shots and committed six turnovers.

Finally, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ended the dry spell as he nailed a self-created mid-range jumper with Jones covered all over him. The massive basket tied the game at 90 apiece with 1:36 left. The Thunder survived four shot attempts by the Pelicans on the next possession after they collected three offensive boards for second-chance opportunities.

The final missed shot was an exclamation mark by Chet Holmgren, who reached the apex of Larry Nance Jr.’s finger roll attempt and blocked the ball out of the Pelicans’ reach. Gilgeous-Alexander penetrated the defense and flicked in an and-one opportunity to give OKC the go-ahead lead.

“At the time, all that was going through my mind was trying to make a play,” Holmgren said on his game-saving block. “I guess that’s what happened.”

Completing the 3-point play, the Thunder led 93-90 with 32 seconds left. The 25-year-old avenged a poor start with timely baskets as he was showered in MVP chants by the playoff crowd each time he went to the free-throw line.

Gilgeous-Alexander added on his go-ahead 3-point play: “I set a screen on the ball and they switched on Dub. Then I just caught the ball at the elbow and just tried to be aggressive and make a play that I’ve made before.”

The Pelicans quickly answered back with a turnaround baseline jumper by McCollum on Wallace to trim OKC’s lead to a single point with 26 seconds left. Holmgren was fouled and had a costly split at the free-throw line.

Leading by just two points, the Thunder played astounding defense in the final 14 seconds as Wallace forced McCollum to settle for a low-efficient 3-pointer in the final seconds. After a back-and-forth contest that saw 20 lead changes and 13 ties, OKC avoided an upset loss and are up 1-0 in the first-round series.

This was a defensive slugfest that looked similar to previous season matchups between OKC and New Orleans. The Thunder shot 44% from the field and went 10-of-32 (31.3%) from 3. They dished out 21 assists on 37 baskets. Only three Thunder players scored double-digit points.

Gilgeous-Alexander had 28 points on 24 shots. Holmgren finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Jalen Williams tallied 19 points on 18 shots. OKC took 11 fewer shots than New Orleans thanks to 13 costly turnovers.

“They were physical with us down the other end,” Daigneault said on the Pelicans’ defense. “We got to play with enough force to get through that. We got to play ahead of them a little bit more. We’ll watch the film. We’ll learn from it again. These series are anywhere from 4-7 games. That’s a long time.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans shot 39% from the field and went 11-of-39 (28.2%) from 3. They had 22 assists on 37 baskets. Four Pelicans players scored double-digit points.

McCollum had 20 points on 9-of-22 shooting and six assists. Ingram was limited to 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Trey Murphy III had 21 points and went 5-of-12 from 3. Jonas Valanciunas collected a 13-point and 20-rebound double-double.

If the Pelicans were going to steal a road game, then this was the type of blueprint they needed to follow. Zion Williamson’s absence limits New Orleans’ offense. It has to turn it into a low-scoring affair to attempt to edge out a close win.

Instead, the Thunder outlasted the Pelicans in this type of matchup. When both teams failed to put up points during the final stretch, Clutch Player of the Year nominee Gilgeous-Alexander outdueled Ingram and McCollum for timely baskets.

“These games are gonna force you to clear hurdles and overcome the adversity of the game and the discomfort of a physical, high-level game,” Daigneault said. “We confronted playing that tonight. I thought we overcame a lot of it… I think we’re a better team at the end of the game than at the beginning.”

The Thunder are now up 1-0 and this core’s playoff debut lived up to the hype. Let’s look at Thunder player grades.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: B-plus

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

In his first playoff contest as the top option, Gilgeous-Alexander had a struggling first three quarters but turned it around in the final frame with a monster closing job.

In 39 minutes, Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 28 points on 11-of-24 shooting, six rebounds and four assists. He shot 0-fo-3 from 3 and went 6-of-7 from the free-throw line.

The 25-year-old had a hot start with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting. He found ease driving to the basket and played the entire first quarter as OKC badly needed points in the 17-point frame.

A 10-point third quarter by Gilgeous-Alexander led the Thunder to a 31-point frame. A lack of calls limited his production. After missing his first five attempts in the fourth quarter, the MVP candidate made a pair of massive baskets in the final 96 seconds.

This included a mid-range pull-up jumper to tie it with 1:36 left in the contest and the go-ahead and-on as Gilgeous-Alexander fought through contact to score the tricky bucket. The pair of massive baskets swung the game in the Thunder’s favor as both teams struggled to generate points down the stretch.

“They are really good at that defensively and we knew that going into the game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on his 28 points on 24 shots. “It feels like that every time you play them. They made you work to score. Because of it, they’re a really good defensive team.”

Chet Holmgren: B-plus

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Relocating on the perimeter, Holmgren swished in a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to serve as the Thunder’s first basket of the playoffs. The crowd was deafening as they loudly cheered for the quick OKC lead.

In his playoff debut, Holmgren finished with 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting, 11 rebounds and five blocks in 32 minutes. He shot 2-of-6 from 3. The 21-year-old became the fifth player in league history to finish with this line in their postseason debut.

The biggest play for Holmgren was the final of his last five blocks. As the Pelicans annoyingly kept finding the ball off misses, the prominent shot-blocker finally had enough and swatted Nance Jr.’s finger roll attempt.

The defensive stop immediately led to Gilgeous-Alexander’s go-ahead basket in the final 32 seconds of the contest. Overall, it was a solid playoff debut for the rookie. Valanciunas got the best of him on the boards, but his impact was neglectable as he was a minus-two in 29 minutes.

“I don’t really consider them rookies anymore,” Gilgeous-Alexander said about Holmgren and Wallace. “They’ve played so many minutes, so many big moments. Once you get past 82 games, I don’t think you’re a rookie anymore.” 

Jalen Williams: B

Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Fighting for a loose ball with Valanciunas, Williams forced a jump ball that was an extra shot of adrenaline injected into a juiced playoff crowd. The bark-happy group saw the second-year wing reciprocate their energy by barking back at the fans.

“He yelled at my face and he picked up me off the floor,” Williams said on the moment. “I just barked, I don’t know. It was good energy the whole time. It was pretty cool. I got to bark with the fans, they barked back.”

The 23-year-old was OKC’s second-leading scorer in this low-scoring win. He finished with 19 points on 8-of-18 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals in 40 minutes. He shot 1-of-5 from 3 and went 2-of-3 from the free-throw line.

A nine-point third frame from Williams helped the Thunder create a lead heading into the fourth quarter. Attacking the paint was an emphasis as he went 6-of-11 inside the paint. Due to a lack of a whistle, this didn’t result in a lot of free throws.

Considering the nature of this contest, Williams did enough as the Thunder’s second-best scorer to squeeze out a close win. A loud pair of middle quarters where he totaled 16 points helped OKC stay within reach.

Cason Wallace: A

Even though Wallace had a quiet night, the final stop was as valuable as a traditional game-winner. Matched up against McCollum, the 20-year-old rookie refused to allow the 32-year-old veteran to get past him.

Instead, McCollum lost his dribble and had to resort to a low-percentage 3-pointer that missed. The massive stop by Wallace exemplified how uncommonly mature this young group is.

Wallace finished with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, one rebound and one assist in 19 minutes off the bench. OKC’s second unit outscored New Orleans’ second unit, 24-18.

“He was awesome. He stood in there, two-point game,” Daigneault said about Wallace. “We didn’t want to go double in that situation and give up the three. He almost got the ball but he put a lot of pressure. Obviously, took them out of what they were doing.”


Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.