Top-seeded Thunder say their maturity matters more than youth heading into playoffs vs. Pelicans

The Associated Press - April 21, 2024 8:04 am

By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After fielding seemingly the millionth question about how young his team is, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault explained why it’s not relevant in Oklahoma City’s case.

“The age is just a number, and there’s a difference between youth and maturity,” the 39-year-old coach said. “If you’re 23 and mature, that’s a good thing. You know, if you’re 33 and mature, that’s a good thing. If you’re 23 and immature, it’s not going to help you. If you’re 53 and immature, you don’t have much time left to figure it out.”

The Thunder, the youngest team in NBA history to secure a No. 1 seed, will open a Western Conference playoff series at home against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday.

While Daigneault touts his team’s maturity, Thunder players are well aware that their youth has outsiders wondering if Oklahoma City is vulnerable. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are both 25, Jalen Williams just turned 23, and Chet Holmgren and Josh Giddey are 21.

That group helped the Thunder finish with a 57-25 record in the regular season.

“Too young, right?” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Heard that all year. It’s not going to change. We’re still young. We’ll probably be young for another four or five years. We don’t worry about it. We worry about what goes on in these four walls.”

New Orleans isn’t buying any talk of weakness. After all, the Thunder beat the Pelicans in the Play-In Tournament last year and won two of the three regular-season matchups this season.

“We know that Shai is going to bring pressure all night,” New Orleans forward Brandon Ingram said. “They have a really, really good team with good defensive guys. … We’ve got to be prepared for all that. We’ve got to go into OKC with a sense of urgency, defensively especially, and then just try to find our best offense.”

While the Thunder are growing tired of hearing about their youth, the Pelicans are again hearing questions about how they’ll play without Zion Williamson.

After straining his left hamstring as he reached the 40-point mark in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night, Williamson underwent imaging and further examination on Wednesday, after which he was essentially shelved for two weeks.

That means he would not be expected to play in the first four games of New Orleans’ first-round series.

After that, he’ll be reevaluated to see if he’s ready to resume basketball activities. That’s no sure thing with his body type (listed at 284 pounds) and injury history.

It’s a major loss — Williamson averaged 23.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the regular season.

However, the Pelicans have gone through this before. Last season, a hamstring injury sidelined Williamson for more than three months and he couldn’t return in time for the play-in loss to the Thunder.

The good news for the current core of this Pelicans team is that they have a history of being competitive without him. They are 8-5 this season when he’s out. Two years ago, the Pelicans made the playoffs and won two playoff games against eventual champion Golden State without Williamson appearing in a single game all season.

In Williamson’s absence, the Pelicans will rely on players across the lineup to play larger roles — particularly Ingram, who averages 20.9 points per game.

“I have more of a scoring role,” Ingram said. “Just a little bit more — be more aggressive. The margin of error is way shorter now. Every time down the floor, we have to get a good shot, we have to get defensive stops, we have to rebound the basketball. We know that’s most important for the playoffs.”

Daigneault said even without Williamson, the Pelicans are dangerous.

“It changes them significantly,” Daigneault said. “He’s just such a unique player. There’s a really good version of them without him and there’s a really good version of them with him.”

The Thunder are trying to win their first playoff series since the 2016 Western Conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still the stars back then. The Thunder went on to take a 3-1 lead against the 73-win Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before falling apart and losing the series 4-3. Since then, the Thunder have lost four first-round series and missed the playoffs three times.

Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 30.1 points per game this season, third-best in the league. New Orleans will counter with two very capable defenders in Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado.

Jones averaged 1.4 steals per game this season while Alvarado averaged 1.1 steals in just 18.4 minutes per contest. Both are high-level on-ball defenders, too.

“Those guys are really aggressive with him up the floor,” Daigneault said. “They try to deny the ball. They ball pressure. They’ve done that very consistently with (Gilgeous-Alexander). That’s what we’re expecting to see from them again.”

Holmgren has been outstanding as a rookie, averaging 16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. He quickly has established himself as one of the league’s best rim protectors. But he is slight of build at 7-foot-1 and 208 pounds. He’ll at times be matched up with New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas, who packs 270 pounds onto his 7-foot frame.

“A really good player,” Holmgren said. “Super physical down low, big body, skilled in the post with the ball in his hands. He can create different looks out there for them when they have him out there.”

Gilgeous-Alexander and Holmgren have gotten a lot of attention, leaving Williams’ growth in his second season overlooked by some.

The 6-6 guard averaged 19.1 points per game on 54% shooting overall and 42.7% shooting from 3-point range. He was runner-up for Rookie of the Year last season.

C.J. McCollum is perhaps the most overlooked Pelicans player. He averaged 20 points per game and shot 43% from 3-point range this season. He has averaged at least 20 points for nine straight years and never made an All-Star team.

New Orleans forward Larry Nance Jr. went off the rails a bit while showing confidence in his team.

“So, we’ve got a ton of respect for them (Thunder), but, respectfully, I’m betting on Pels,” Nance said before quickly clarifying that he did not mean that literally.

“I’m not betting — on anything,” he exclaimed. “I don’t own a betting app. None of that!”


AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.


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