‘Committed’ Thunder post 1st series win since ’16

NEW ORLEANS — Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault took the postgame podium on Monday night with his hair a bit more damp than usual.

When the NBA’s Coach of the Year walked into the visitors locker room following OKC’s 97-89 win in Game 4 to clinch a first-round sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans, he was met by players dousing him with water — because there was a lot to celebrate.

The Thunder became the youngest team in NBA history to capture a playoff series, and they did it in convincing fashion as the top seed in the Western Conference.

Daigneault said there’s a difference between a young team and a mature team and that his Thunder are a mature group.

“We have a committed team,” Daigneault said. “I think a lot of times the age of the team, you can make assumptions about the stage that the players are in their careers. But I’ve said all along, we have an uncommon group of people and players, and I think that’s a huge reason why we’re able to accomplish some of these things. They deserve all the credit.”

Oklahoma City’s average age when weighted by playing time is 23 years, 343 days. The previous youngest team to win a playoff series was the 2011 Thunder (24 years, 149 days).

But OKC forward Jalen Williams said that he and his teammates don’t look at how young they are because they all just want to win games.

“It’s just that’s another thing for us to not think about,” Williams said. “So, it’s kind of been brought up. It’s just something that everybody needs to talk about, and we kind of just leave it out there in the day. It’s just basketball, and we’re coming to compete regardless of how old we are and things like that.”

While both teams struggled to get going offensively early in Game 4, the Thunder answered in a big way in the fourth quarter to take control.

Up 80-75 with just over eight minutes remaining, the Pelicans had a chance to push the lead to seven after Jose Alvarado poked the ball away as Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander attempted a shot in the lane. The ball went straight to New Orleans’ CJ McCollum, who took off toward the basket.

With teammate Naji Marshall to McCollum’s right and Williams between them — and Gilgeous-Alexander trailing — McCollum went up for a layup, but Williams’ contest was good enough to force a miss.

The Thunder took control from there. Chet Holmgren got a putback attempt to fall on the next possession. After a Pelicans’ turnover, a Josh Giddey 3-pointer drew a timeout from New Orleans. Afterward, another Giddey trey gave the Thunder the lead for good.

It was an 18-2 run in total for OKC; the Pelicans had only one basket between the 8:19 and 2:51 marks of the final quarter.

Giddey hit four 3-pointers overall to match his total from Game 3. It was only the third time in his career — regular season and playoffs combined — he hit at least four 3s in back-to-back games.

“Anytime the ball’s going in, it’s easy to be confident,” Giddey said. “I thought on defense when we started getting stops, we made them take a lot of tough shots. They weren’t hitting them, and we were getting our transition, we were getting what we wanted, and forced them to call the timeout early in that fourth.

“Once a guy sees the ball through the hoop a couple of times, they started to build confidence, and that’s contagious for the whole team.”

New Orleans turned the ball over 19 times on Monday, its third straight game of at least 18 turnovers. Throughout the series, the Thunder feasted off the Pelicans’ mistakes, outscoring New Orleans 79-37 on points off turnovers.

“They capitalized on some turnovers and honestly some baskets that we just missed that led to transition opportunities for them, and that’s the difference in the game,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “Our margin for error is small. This is a team that turns you over. The last few games we turned the ball over, and they capitalized on it.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Thunder received 99.5% of their points from players aged 25 or younger in this series. That is the highest such rate by any team in a playoff series in NBA history. The previous high was 96.4% by the Chicago Stags against the Baltimore Bullets in the 1948 semifinals. (The only player older than 25 to score for the Thunder was Kenrich Williams with two points.)

It was the Thunder’s first series victory since the 2016 Western Conference semifinals. They had lost their previous five series before sweeping New Orleans. It also was just the third best-of-seven series sweep in franchise history and only the second since the team moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.

The key factor throughout the series was the Thunder’s defense. They held New Orleans to an average of 89.5 points, the fewest the franchise has allowed in a best-of-seven series.

While Luguentz Dort‘s defense on New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram was key the entire series, the Pelicans couldn’t seem to get anything going at the rim when Holmgren was there. New Orleans was 9-of-35 on shots within five feet of the basket when Holmgren was the closest defender.

Now, OKC’s attention shifts to the winner of the Dallas MavericksLA Clippers series that is tied 2-2. The Thunder are in the same position they were in last week, waiting around to see who their next opponent will be.

“I think we were well rested for this series,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And I would say keep the same mindset. Do whatever it takes to win. Every series is going to look different. Every game is going to look different. Teams make adjustments. You play different teams. Just try to win at all costs, and that’s what matters in the NBA.”

This post was originally published on ESPN

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