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Mussatto: Why OKC Thunder removing Josh Giddey from starting lineup came at odd time

Mark Daigneault finally did it. He benched Josh Giddey in the Thunder’s 104-92 loss to the Mavericks in Game 5.

But as we saw Wednesday, the Thunder’s offensive woes weren’t solved by a single lineup change.

They’re much deeper than that.

The best 3-point shooting team in the regular season (38.9%) staged a brick fest in Bricktown (10-of-40), continuing a series long drought from behind the arc. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, yet again, was OKC’s only reliable source of offense. Jalen Williams waited too long to get going. Lu Dort went 2-of-8 from long range. So too did Isaiah Joe, who started in Giddey’s place.

The Thunder shot 43% from the field, dragged down by 25% 3-point shooting. For the most part, the Thunder got the looks it desired. The shots just didn’t fall. Meanwhile, Luka Doncic authored a masterclass and the Mavs continued to rain threes.

OKC trails 3-2 in the series, which is now headed back to Dallas for a Game 6 at 7 p.m. Saturday.

More: OKC Thunder season on the brink after loss vs Mavericks in Game 5 of West semifinals

Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey (3) lays up the ball in the third quarter during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Oklahoma Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.
Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey (3) lays up the ball in the third quarter during Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Oklahoma Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Daigneault’s decision to bring Giddey off the bench didn’t swing the game one way or the other, but it sure led to lots of questions.

Like, why?

“First of all, it gave us a chance to get back to some normal attacks on offense,” Daigneault said. “Shake the game up a little bit… It also gets Josh second unit minutes where he can playmake a little bit…”

Giddey’s fit in the starting lineup has long been clunky, especially against these Mavericks. But that much was clear after Game 1. And after Game 2. And Games 3 and 4. Despite starting, Giddey averaged just 13.3 minutes per game through the first four games of the series.

And these fit issues didn’t suddenly reveal themselves. We’ve been having this debate for months. In late February, I wrote a column with the headline: “Why Josh Giddey should stay in Thunder starting lineup.” 

After the Thunder’s Game 4 win in Dallas, Daigneault even referenced Giddey being a plus-six in the game. What was left unsaid was Giddey’s -21.3 net rating in the series. That is, the Thunder being outscored by 21.3 points per 100 possessions with Giddey on the floor through the first four games.

So why make the move now? What changed between Games 4 and 5?

“Considering all the information before every single game and treating every game as its own life, I just wasn’t comfortable doing it up until now,” Daigneault said. “At the end of the day I’m making a lot of different decisions. They’re not all gonna be right or wrong.”

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Most are right.

Daigneault is the Coach of the Year for a reason. He’s a genius tactician, but one who never loses touch with the emotional pulse of his team.

Questioning Daigneault about his decision to bench Giddey wasn’t a criticism, by the way. Asking him to explain his thinking was out of sheer curiosity.

I’ve waffled on how the Thunder should handle the Giddey conundrum, mostly leaning toward keeping him in the starting lineup. But in this series, it seemed as though keeping Giddey in the starting lineup was nothing more than ceremonial.

Giddey, the Thunder’s No. 6 pick in the 2021 draft, had started all 218 games of his three-year NBA career: 210 regular-season games and eight layoff games.

That’s why benching him Wednesday was such a surprise. On the other hand, it was no surprise at all. Surprising that it took so long?

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Giddey played fine in his 12 minutes off the bench. He had 11 points, three rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. When one of Gilgeous-Alexander or Jalen Williams is off the floor, Giddey can act as a playmaking hub off the bench.

“I was impressed by him,” Daigneault said. “I was factoring in that he would be calibrating to a degree when he got out there, and that wasn’t the case.”

After the home loss, per usual, The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” played from the Paycom Center speakers.

“Life goes on, brah, la-la, how their life goes on.” 

The Thunder’s remarkable season will go on for another game.

Past that? It’s going to need more than a lineup change to survive.

More: OKC Thunder needs a fully functional 'Big Three' to beat Dallas Mavericks in NBA playoffs

Joe Mussatto is a sports columnist for The Oklahoman. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at jmussatto@oklahoman.com. Support Joe's work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Thunder benches Josh Giddey, but offense still struggles vs Mavs