Player grades: Thunder survive Pelicans with low-scoring 94-92 Game 1 win

OKLAHOMA CITY — Trying to create separation, CJ McCollum lost his handle and couldn’t get past Cason Wallace in the final seconds. Instead of a clean look to force overtime, he heaved a desperate 3-pointer that clanked off the rim. The final buzzer sounded and OKC avoided disaster.

The Oklahoma City Thunder won a thriller in Game 1 over the New Orleans Pelicans with a tight 94-92 win to go up 1-0 in the series. The back-and-forth contest saw both squads exchange leads in the final minutes.

“It was a tough game. I thought the defensive physically, really the whole game, was really, really good,” Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said on the win. “We really held them to tough shots. They made a couple of tough ones, they obviously rebounded some of them. I thought the defense was really, really good tonight.”

It was an ugly start for both teams as they were tied at 17 apiece after the first quarter. That continued in the second frame as both squads tallied 26 points and entered halftime deadlocked at 43 points even.

Coming out of the break, both teams continued to exchange baskets. A 17-7 run by the Thunder finally created some space as they led by eight points with a little over four minutes left in the third frame. The Pelicans immediately answered with nine straight points to create a 66-65 advantage with a little under two minutes left.

The Thunder had a strong final two minutes as they entered the fourth quarter with a 74-68 advantage. A 17-6 second-half run by OKC bled over to the final frame and the Thunder enjoyed a nine-point lead a little over one minute into the fourth quarter.

As the active crowd created momentum for the Thunder, it looked like OKC was on the verge of blowing it open after a stout opening three quarters. Instead, the Pelicans remained resilient and responded with a 9-3 run to cut the Thunder’s lead to 82-79 with less than nine minutes left.

After a near-two minute scoring drought, Herb Jones swished in a catch-and-shoot right-wing 3-pointer to tie the contest at 88 apiece with four minutes left. Soon after, Brandon Ingram’s transition basket gave New Orleans a 90-88 lead with 3:34 left following an OKC turnover.

Suddenly, the superb active crowd turned silent as the short-handed Pelicans survived the Thunder’s momentum and had a two-point lead. OKC called a timeout and both teams returned to a drought. They combined to miss the next three shots and committed six turnovers.

Finally, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ended the dry spell as he nailed a self-created mid-range jumper with Jones covered all over him. The massive basket tied the game at 90 apiece with 1:36 left. The Thunder survived four shot attempts by the Pelicans on the next possession after they collected three offensive boards for second-chance opportunities.

The final missed shot was an exclamation mark by Chet Holmgren, who reached the apex of Larry Nance Jr.’s finger roll attempt and blocked the ball out of the Pelicans’ reach. Gilgeous-Alexander penetrated the defense and flicked in an and-one opportunity to give OKC the go-ahead lead.

Completing the 3-point play, the Thunder led 93-90 with 32 seconds left. The 25-year-old avenged a poor start with a strong finish as he was showered in MVP chants by the playoff crowd.

The Pelicans quickly answered back with a turnaround baseline jumper by McCollum on Wallace to trim OKC’s lead to a single point with 26 seconds left. Holmgren was fouled and had a costly split at the free-throw line.

Leading by just two points, the Thunder played astound defense in the final 14 seconds as Wallace forced McCollum to settle for a low-efficient 3-pointer in the final seconds. After a back-and-forth contest that saw 20 lead changes and 13 ties, OKC avoided an upset loss and are up 1-0 in the first-round series.

This was a defensive slugfest that’s looked similar to previous season matchups between OKC and New Orleans. The Thunder shot 44% from the field and went 10-of-32 (31.3%) from 3. They dished out 21 assists on 37 baskets. Only three Thunder players scored double-digit points.

Gilgeous-Alexander had 28 points on 24 shots. Holmgren finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Jalen Williams tallied 19 points on 18 shots. OKC took 11 fewer shots than New Orleans thanks to 13 costly turnovers.

“They were physical with us down the other end,” Daigneault said on the Pelicans’ defense. “We got to play with enough force to get through that. We got to play ahead of them a little bit more. We’ll watch the film. We’ll learn from it again. These series are anywhere from 4-7 games. That’s a long time.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans shot 39% from the field and went 11-of-39 (28.2%) from 3. They had 22 assists on 37 baskets. Four Pelicans players scored double-digit points.

McCollum had 20 points on 9-of-22 shooting and six assists. Ingram was limited to 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Trey Murphy III had 21 points and went 5-of-12 from 3. Jonas Valanciunas collected a 13-point and 20-rebound double-double.

If the Pelicans are going to steal a road game, then this was the type of blueprint they needed to follow. Zion Williamson’s absence limits New Orleans’ offense and needed to turn it into low-scoring affair and edge out a close win.

Instead, the Thunder outlasted the Pelicans in this type of matchup. When both teams failed to put up points during the final stretch, Clutch Player of the Year nominee Gilgeous-Alexander outdueled Ingram and McCollum for timely basket.

The Thunder are now up 1-0 and this core’s playoff debut lived up to the hype. Let’s look at Thunder player grades.

Story originally appeared on Thunder Wire