How OKC Thunder is aiming to overcome slow starts against Mavericks in Game 5

DALLAS — Baked into the glory of the Thunder’s 100-96 Game 4 win Monday night, an explicable yet triumphant effort to tie the series, was the climb.

For much of Monday night, Dallas held what felt like history’s most insurmountable single-digit lead. Until the fourth quarter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's midrange heroics weren’t enough for the Mavericks’ responses. That cushion remained. A wedge that might not have existed had the Thunder not gotten off to another slow start.

For three straight games, coach Mark Daigneault has paced onto the floor and underneath the basket sooner than he’d like. The Thunder’s starters have gotten off to unremarkable starts, forcing Daigneault to call timeouts and pivot.

In Monday’s Game 4, the Thunder trailed 14-6 before Daigneault wanted to talk things over, substituting Aaron Wiggins for Josh Giddey. In Game 3, OKC trailed 11-5 before Daigneault saw enough. In Game 2, the Mavericks held a 16-7 lead when Daigneault signaled to huddle.

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Thunder guard Josh Giddey (3) looks to pass around Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) during the first quarter Monday night at American Airlines Center.
Thunder guard Josh Giddey (3) looks to pass around Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) during the first quarter Monday night at American Airlines Center.

Dallas has remained firm in the way it has defended Josh Giddey. Between the way Mavs center Daniel Gafford is being deployed and how Gilgeous-Alexander is often being trapped, the MVP finalist is forced to find creases in some of the toughest half-court circumstances.

“It's a combination of things,” Daigneault said of the Thunder’s starts. “I thought Josh was a positive tonight in the game. We won the minutes when he was on the court tonight and they're guarding him like that the entire game. So it's never one thing. It's a complex game. It's rebounding. It's defense. It's offense. That's what contributes to taking the lead. That's what contributes to a deficit. Same factors go in but you can never put it in a vacuum.”

Giddey entered Game 4 a combined minus-28. He finished Monday’s game a series best plus-6, which might’ve included some inflation. Twice in the final 10.1 seconds, Giddey was inserted solely after the Thunder had advanced to midcourt with a timeout, asked to inbound the ball into the halfcourt and to a desirable shooter. He tagged along for four free throws.

Monday’s start saw Dallas and Gafford shrink the floor with Giddey in the distance. It saw Jalen Williams attempt to get downhill with the use of flimsy ball screens. It saw the Mavericks limit Chet Holmgren’s clean looks from 3 once more. None operated inside the space they’d enjoyed for much of the season.

The Thunder shot 36.4% from the field in the first quarter. It was 0 for 6 from 3.

It’s the kind of hole that’s a tough ask to crawl out of for the version of the Thunder offense seen for much of Monday. It took a fourth quarter with rookie Cason Wallace — a sound, floor-spacing, dribble-eating 20-year-old — and Gilgeous-Alexander’s dominance to steal a win.

More: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leads OKC to comeback win over Dallas in Game 4

Still, Giddey has started every game in his career. Daigneault won’t reveal starters prior to games, but they never change without injury.

“There's been no conversations,” Giddey told The Oklahoman of his status as a starter prior to Game 3. “I understand playoff series, teams make different moves and adjustments, series goes on. I just want what’s best for my team.”

Daigneault has pivoted several times out of halftime. With Wiggins or Isaiah Joe in place of Giddey. OKC eventually overcame its start and avoided a 3-1 deficit Monday. But how many more times can it make the climb? How many more times will it need to?

“I look at everything all the time,” Daigneault said after Game 4. “But at the end of the day, I'm making the decisions. I made every decision I could to win Game 4 for tonight. I'm gonna make every decision I can to make sure to win Game 5. That's the playoffs. We're just doing everything we can.”

More: What makes guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 'a challenge' in NBA playoffs? Mavs explain

Game 5: Thunder vs. Mavericks

TIPOFF: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Paycom Center (TNT)

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Thunder working to overcome slow starts vs. Dallas Mavericks