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Suddenly, Aleksej Pokusevski is something of a marksman.
Over the first dozen games of the Oklahoma City Thunder rookie’s career, the forward attempted 40 3-pointers. Seven of them fell.
He matched that number against the Charlotte Hornets, making seven of his 11 3-pointers and setting an OKC rookie single-game record in the process. He ended the game with 25 points, a career high, and helped the Thunder make it a game through three quarters.
But that fourth quarter got out of hand fast. With two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Thunder trailed by three. Two minutes into the fourth quarter, they trailed by 15.
Oklahoma City lost 113-102 to the Hornets, but this wasn’t a bad loss the way the last three games have been. OKC overcome a 10-point deficit in the first quarter to eventually take the lead, stayed tight in the middle two quarters, and it wasn’t until those pivotal four minutes that they let the game slip.
“We took a step from last game,” said Jaylen Hoard, who had 13 points off the bench. “We played harder, we played with more of a sense of urgency. … Even though we didn’t come out with a win, we felt like our energy was good.”
Pokusevski didn’t score in the fourth quarter and then left with a hip injury halfway through. The other Thunder rookie, Theo Maledon, picked up his slack.
Maledon had 14 points in the fourth quarter alone and finished with 25.
This past Friday, the two became the first pair of teammates under the age of 20 to record 20 points in the same game. On Wednesday, they did it again and became the first pair of rookie teammates to score 25 or more points in the same game since the Cleveland Cavaliers duo of Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson did so on March 19, 2012, according to the Thunder.
Maledon shot 8-for-16 from the field and tallied five assists and rebounds apiece. Pokusevski likely would have recorded a double-double had he not departed for the locker room early, as he finished with nine rebounds and four assists. It was the best and most efficient game of his career as he shot 9-for-14 from the field and 7-for-11 from deep.
Over four games in April, Pokusevski has made 15 of 29 3-point attempts, a clip of 51.7% that is even more absurd when given the context of those first dozen games of his career.
Kenrich Williams only had six points against Charlotte, but he made quite an impact. After departing the game on Monday against the Detroit Pistons early due to an ankle injury, he played 34 minutes against the Hornets and posted nine rebounds, nine assists and three steals for one of the odder near-double-doubles of the year.
“We try to educate our players all the time — and really have an identity as a team that competes and really plays together, regardless of whether or not the ball’s going in and regardless of anything else that going on. And he’s a walking embodiment of that,” Daigneault said.
“That’s who he is and he’s a great example day-in and day-out for a lot of guys that are trying to learn that way.”
So yes. The Thunder played better than they had in recent outings. But the Hornets went on a 7-2 run over the final two minutes of the third quarter and increased what started as a 78-75 Charlotte advantage to a 92-77 lead over four minutes of play.
Here are Oklahoma City’s first five possessions of the fourth quarter:
Tony Bradley offensive foul
Ty Jerome turnover
Maledon missed floater
That was what Charlotte had been waiting for.
Without Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball or Malik Monk in the lineup, seven Hornets players scored at least 12 points, led by Jalen McDaniels’ 21. Cody Zeller was big off the bench, recording 15 points and 14 rebounds while contributing to that third/fourth-quarter run.
That stretch was the only real difference, and those turnovers were the key indicator for the loss. The turnover discrepancy (22 for OKC, 12 for Charlotte) highly favored the Hornets, and in turn, the number of field goals attempted did as well (97 for Charlotte, 85 for OKC).
Outside those numbers, the two teams were largely equal: The Thunder’s field goal percentage was within 1% of Charlotte’s, the rebounding was near-equal, and neither team took a crazy amount of free throws. OKC went 16-for-41 from 3, a promising number.
“Tonight, after obviously a tough stretch of games, we got back on track competitively,” said head coach Mark Daigneault. “They were the better team, they out-executed us a little bit, but we really fought and competed tonight.
Overall, this is the type of game the Thunder front office can live with and be happy with. It was competitive. It was a learning experience. It was a loss.
And for the first time in a week, it wasn’t a bad loss.