On December 2nd, the Thunder arrived in Memphis to face off against the Grizzlies. OKC was fresh off of a heartbreaking home loss to the Houston Rockets at home, which featured their star player Shai Gilgeous-Alexander putting up an impressive 39 points. However, on the second night of this back-to-back, the Thunder would be without their ace due to multiple collisions with Rockets players that sent Shai’s head careening off of the floor. Not once, but twice. Facing concussion protocol, Shai joined Josh Giddey, Kenrich Williams, and Derrick Favors on the bench as the Thunder looked to bounce back against a Grizzlies team missing their own star, Ja Morant.
They did not bounce back.
Without Shai, Giddey, and Kenny, the Thunder were missing their top 3 playmakers on the team, causing the offense to sputter. Lu Dort tried to carry the load before Ty Jerome took over, leading to the NBA’s worst team in total assists per game (20.4), to complete only 14.
There was no scoring – our highest scorer, Dort, only had 15 points. There was no defense as every Grizzlies player scored and nine (!!!) were in double figures.
While Thunder ended up setting a few records that day, the one that people want to point to is margin of victory. 152-79 (73 point margin) is not only the largest margin of defeat for a team on the road, it’s the largest margin of defeat in NBA history.
As many podcast hosts and talking heads in the sports world will point out, the Thunder also hold the NBA record for largest margin of defeat at home against the Indiana Pacers (57 points) on May 1st of this same calendar year. Domantas Sabonis had a triple double at halftime and Doug McDermott tied his career high for points at 31. It was a great time.
In both instances, the curmudgeonous world of sports media used this as their opportunity to once again preach against tanking: the only way that a small market team can hope to (one day) compete in todays NBA.
However, what the media, fans on Twitter, and a lot of people in today’s day and age forgot to consider is context.
Shai, Giddey, Kenrich, and Favors did not play in this game. Ironically enough, for one reason or another, three of the four did not play in the Pacers game either.
My buddy texted me the day after, “Is Shai worth 73 points?”, just dripping in condescending sarcasm.
So I replied back, “Probably not, but Shai, Giddey, and Kenrich Williams? Probably.”
To which he snidely rebutted, “Did Ja play last night?”
To his credit, he wasn’t wrong about Ja not playing. To his dismay, it’s not an original thought. It’s the same argument that anyone would use when a Thunder fan would try to bring context into the picture.
But the fact of the matter is, it’s fair.
For example, last night Shai, Giddey, Kenrich, and Favors combined for 61 points. Not 73, I grant you but 61 points all the same.
Between the four, they had 17 assists. Even if you assume that every assist was for a two-point bucket (they weren’t) that still is good for 34 points.
That’s 95 points that the Thunder didn’t have in the Grizzlies record setting game.
Now yes, I get it, I know this is a different game, it’s probably going to be considered a cherry picked stat, but it’s just a snapshot into the impact that these guys – well at least 3 of the 4 guys – have on this team.
Something that doesn’t show up on that box score is leadership. I think anyone who watches a Thunder game could tell you that Shai, Giddey, and Kenny are the prime examples of leadership for our team. It doesn’t matter what the score is, they are always going to fight.
It shows, considering last night was the 6th (!!!!) time the Thunder came back from 15+ down to win this season. That number leading the NBA. A tanking team, mind you.
The Thunder didn’t have that fight that night against Memphis. While Dort sets a tone with his defensive prowess and effort, and Mike Muscala is a steady veteran to come in off the bench to make smart basketball plays on both ends, neither of those guys are the emotional leaders that the other 3 are. The kind of leaders that motivate you to keep fighting, and keep chipping away at a lead no matter how large it gets.
That’s the image that the world saw for the days to come when they thought of the Thunder. But that’s not a valid representation.
Despite the organizational aspirations, this team and this coaching staff doesn’t roll over. They never back down. They never stop fighting. They play hard, the play fast, they play smart, and they play together.
That is who this team is.
The world is starting to see.
That’s more like it.