OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder took down the league leading Milwaukee Bucks 118-112 Sunday night to extend their winning streak to five games.
Paul George hit eight threes on 12 attempts, including the game-sealing three with 47 seconds remaining, and finished with a 36-point, 13-rebound double-double. Russell Westbrook posted another triple double, six Thunder players finished in double figures and the Thunder managed to shoot 50 percent from 3-point land as a team.
But the real story was how Oklahoma City bottled up MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Sure, he finished with 27 points, but it took him 22 shots to get there, and the Thunder held him to just three points in the first half. The league leader in points in the paint didn’t even register a field goal in the first half, going 0 of 6, as the Thunder held the Bucks to 42 points, taking a 14-point lead into halftime.
Jerami Grant, who finished with five blocks, was a major thorn in Antetokounmpo's side. So was George and Nerlens Noel, and even Westbrook, who registered one of at least seven blocks the team had on the towering stretch forward. Together, the Thunder forced 14 turnovers, with nine coming in the first half.
“Jerami did a great job,” OKC coach Billy Donovan said. “I know Giannis has got great length, but Jerami is a very long player, too, and he did a very good job of staying in between him and the basket. I think when we got into some tough situations where we needed some help coverage down on him, we were able to do that.”
The Thunder never let Antetokounmpo have anything easy and by the time he got rolling it was too late. The Thunder held a double-digit lead for much of the second half, and, despite a late Milwaukee push in the final four minutes, prevailed.
So, how did they do it?
When asked before the game how the Thunder would cope with Antetokounmpo, Donovan said the key would be finding ways to get help in the right spots. Whenever Antetokounmpo tried to power his way into the paint, he was swarmed.
“Everywhere Giannis went, he saw a crowd,” Oklahoma City guard Terrance Ferguson said. “That was our whole game plan.”
After the win, Donovan said his team “left a lot of points out there.”
The Thunder finished an abysmal 56 percent from the free throw line — a fact that nearly delivered the Bucks a perfect comeback opportunity — but it was the Thunder’s heroic defensive identity that overshadowed its brick-laying alter ego.
Even that appears to be changing for the better.
Earlier this season, when the Thunder were the worst three-point shooting team in the league, Donovan maintained the team could shoot better. Though they’re far from the upper echelon of shooting squads — currently 25 out of 30 in 3-point percentage — the Thunder have recently proven Donovan right.
Coming into Sunday’s game, the Thunder had shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc in all but one of their last 10 games.
Is Oklahoma City’s recent string of success the kind of identity fans can come to expect? Donovan said the truth may lie somewhere in the middle.
“I feel like we’ve generated good shots for most of the year,” he said. “For whatever reason, the ball is going in the basket, but one thing I think that happened with us missing shots earlier in the year is it really forced us to play defense at a much higher level … So, the one thing I don’t want to have happen is, because we’re shooting the ball better, our defense to start to fade away."
Sunday, the Thunder proved they can keep their shooting stride without losing their defensive identity, and they did it against a team carrying the league's best record and carrying a six-game winning streak,"
“We’ve been trying to get back to our identity and being that defensive-first team that can get out on the break and finish,” center Nerlens Noel said. “Tonight [we did] a great job.”
The Thunder improved to 31-18. They remain in third place in the Western Conference behind Denver (33-15) and Golden State (35-14).