Either way Joel Embiidwith his knee buckling beneath him and a double team forming around him with less than a minute to play, bounced a ball behind him and into the hands of Tyrese Maxey as the late shot clock wound down.
Oklahoma City had defended possession well. He had to. Then, with 1.8 seconds flashing at the top of the backboard, Isaiah Joe ran into Maxey and bailed him out.
The Thunder’s night was littered with plays like that in a 127-123 loss.. Oklahoma City needed something close to perfection. To compensate for the absence of Jalen Williams. To make up for a rough half. To compensate for the anger of Embiid and Maxey on free throws.
“I just thought we didn’t have our best physical and mental performance,” said coach Mark Daigneault. “It definitely wasn’t the best we could play.
“It hasn’t been who we are at this point in the season.”
The Thunder, who entered the game 11-4, look every bit like a heavy hitter in the Western Conference. On Saturday, he hosted a Philadelphia utopia.
Patrick Beverly fights for long rebounds and distributes shots to his teammates on tough closeouts, Paul Reed knocks down corner 3s, Robert Covington converts into first Robert Covington.
By then, OKC was already clear of any problems stemming from Embiid and Maxey’s regular lineup. Embiid finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and made 19 of his 21 free throw attempts. Maxey added 28 points, eight rebounds, three assists and made nine of his 11 free throws.
The propensity of Maxey and Embiid – especially Embiid – to get to the line was inevitable, however.
“That’s what they do,” Daigneault said. “They are good at it. … I think on a lot of those plays, if we had had unlimited challenges and contested a lot of those plays, I think they would have kept them with the disparity. I would just like some of the contact that was called on this end of the floor to be called on the other end if that is what it will be called.
These are the boxes OKC needed to check outside of the Sixers’ two stars that saw it fail. We’re getting closer to the shooters, maybe closer to Covington than Beverly. Connection on open plans. Realization when Philadelphia landed the first shot of the second half.
Apart from Chet Holmgren, who scored 12 points in the third quarter en route to 33 points – which he paired with six rebounds, three blocks and four 3s – Oklahoma City couldn’t bring anything down. He shot 29.6 percent from the field in the third quarter, which included Holmgren’s efficient blast.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was essentially perfect. The deserved MVP chants, the two-way play at its peak, the shot making as unique and fulfilling as ever. OKC has relied on him constantly, especially in lineups where he is the sole self-creator. Sometimes, that’s when the Thunder really need some juice.
And although SGA gave the team a lot on Saturday – 31 points, six rebounds, five assists – its third quarter had to be as perfect as it was. He only went 1 of 7 during the period.
OKC needed some sort of break.
He just didn’t get any from the Sixers’ wing shooters. Nic Batum had 14 points, three 3-pointers and helped frustrate SGA in the third. Covington drilled two huge 3s. Surely there could be no breakup with Embiid. Despite two big lineups, he launched into his slow mid-range jumps. He was living on the free throw line to the point that Window World was probably considering canceling its sponsorship.
SGA’s late efforts and Holmgren’s much-too-late involvement were just that: late. The Sixers had already kept their promises.
“I thought we pushed some of the right buttons on the field to give ourselves every chance to try to win,” Daigneault said. “It’s hard to win a game when you’re down 10 or 12 points this late.”
Observation of Holmgren and J-Will
Daigneault would not be suitable for bingo. He refuses to limit himself to a finite list of combinations, to a destiny determined by randomly chosen outcomes.
Apologies to the local nursing home who might have been hoping for a celebrity guest.
He continues to create new duos, new lineups, and insists that he will never sit still and stay true to his roots when something he doesn’t like happens. Saturday’s decision? Playing Holmgren and Jaylin Williams side by side.
It’s something he said he’s wanted to try for a while now. Holmgren’s place on the court has been a point of discussion, but he has thrived as a center thus far, leaving new possibilities on the table — “that has to be an option for us,” Daigneault said. That includes suiting up (and starting the second half) alongside another great like Williams.
“Seeing Chet play outside the center of the offense was interesting,” Daigneault said. “I don’t think it neutralized him, so that was encouraging.”
Williams had eight points, six rebounds and five assists, all going to Holmgren. Looking back, their minutes together on Saturday also worked well as Williams knocked down two of her five 3-point attempts. Defenses will have to respect his jump shot to some extent for the Thunder to be looser with the other three sharing the court with this pair.
But on Saturday, it worked. Williams’ playing ability and frame combined with Holmgren’s fluidity and skill. It wasn’t perfect in defending Embiid, but no one is. And it had its moments, providing a needed extra perspective in relation to the potentially overbearing big men moving forward.
“Just playing with Chet overall makes the game easier,” Williams said.
Holmgren vs. Embiid
Holmgren is too humble to admit it. Too calculated to exaggerate his pride. But after years of skeptics citing his physique as something that would hold him back, Holmgren looked in tip-top shape Saturday against one of the league’s premier forces.
He actually played.
He forced the defense to stretch out after making five 3s (and shooting 11). He blocked shots and manned the rim. He looked every bit like a capable center and budding star. And he did all this while losing nearly 80 pounds to Embiid.
Holmgren understands well how opposed the two are.
“When you have skill but also physical ability, in terms of size and strength, that complement each other, he’s a really tough goalie,” Holmgren said.
Holmgren cited the team’s defense and some of the ways OKC tends to defend some talented bigs. All of that was highlighted Saturday with a player as powerful as Embiid.
But Holmgren should also bow. He went blow for blow with the reigning MVP and was the Thunder’s biggest positive.
“It’s about respect, from one player to another,” Holmgren said. “I see the work he does, he sees the work I do.”
Jalen Williams Timeline
For a third straight game, Jalen Williams did not play for the Thunder on Saturday.
“He’s out right now,” Daigneault said before the game when asked about the timetable for Williams’ return. “As I told you before, I’m going to stick to the lists on things like this, just because giving you more information about it may get us in trouble like it did last year.”
Williams is recovering from a hip injury he suffered during the trip to Golden State. His absence weighed, but it became obvious during OKC’s defeat against the Sixers.
It’s unclear if he’ll return to play soon, but Daigneault noted he didn’t practice Friday.