OKLAHOMA CITY — The faces were familiar. The memories shared were special. Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams’ thoughts of Billy Donovan are still meaningful to him three years after leaving Oklahoma City following the tragic loss of his wife Ingrid.
“We had a great relationship from the time I met him to this day,” Williams said before the game. “I just knew he was the kind of person I didn’t just want to work for but do well for.”
Donovan, who became the Thunder’s head coach in 2015 focused on everything outside of basketball when remembering his former assistant.
“Just a great guy,“ Donovan said before tip-off. “Unfortnatley my time with him was cut shorter than it could have been with the tragedy that he and his family had to deal with. I’ve remained very close to Monty. He was incredibly valuable to me early in my career and the relationships established will last a lifetime.”
After the reunions concluded, the Oklahoma City Thunder (14-14) did something they haven’t done in two games — avoid a 24-point deficit. Instead the Thunder led throughout the majority of the contest. Despite the difference in the journey, the almighty result remained the same in a 126-108 victory over the Suns (11-17).
“Thought we started a lot better than the first two quarters than we did the last two games,“ Donovan said after the game. “I thought a lot of guys contributed and because of that we did a very good job tonight."
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s production has slowly risen over the last seven games following a 10-game slump. Last night’s performance showcased more of the same and even new heights.
The second-year guard out of Kentucky finished with a career-high 32 points on 13 of 18 shooting. The floor seemed to open up for Gilgeous-Alexander more than in recent games. The hoop seemed a tad larger, but Gilgeous-Alexander would disagree.
“A lot of shots just went in tonight,” Gilgeous-Alexander said afterwards. “I get those shots a lot of nights but they just fell for me. I was fortunate.”
“The thing that’s really impressive for me with him is the angle he finishes with the ball,“ Donovan said of Gilgeous-Alexander’s evening. “They were trying to switch a lot and it allowed him to get into the paint a handful of times.”
Gilgeous-Alexander set the tone with methodical and controlled drives to the basket. He scored 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting in the first quarter. Thanks to a switch-heavy defensive scheme from the Suns, the painted area was dominated by the Thunder with an 18-8 advantage after the initial 12 minutes of play.
Where Gilgeous-Alexander set up the party in the paint, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schröder RSVP’d and brought buckets.
The Italian sharpshooter is known mainly for his scoring ability away from the basket. All throughout the game, Gallinari saw Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder’s ability to get into the heart of the Suns’ defense and found success. Resulting in a handful of drive dunks and layups at the rim/
“Especially for an amazing athlete like me,” Gallinari said with a chuckle. “It’s fun to get some dunks in during a game.”
Oklahoma City won the paint battle 58-38. In addition to getting easy, high percentage shots, Oklahoma City had little trouble scoring from anywhere else.
Gallinari finished with 22 points on 8 of 14 shooting while Schröder continued his scoring barrage over the last month with 24 points.
While OKC was able to avoid being down in a 24-point hole, the third quarter woes seemed to rear its ugly head early on. Ricky Rubio scored 12 points within the first five minutes of the quarter, and the Suns outscored the Thunder 15-9 in that span, prompting a Donovan timeout.
From there, the Thunder outscored Phoenix 61-43 to secure the win.
“These guys are really good at course correcting,” Donovan said. “These guys know. We just couldn’t get stops. They made some tough shots so you give them credit. But our guys did a better job defensively from there, especially into the fourth quarter.”
With the victory, the Thunder also did something they haven’t done all season. They’re at .500 on the year and sit comfortably — for now — at the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
Donovan said at practice on Thursday that getting to .500 wasn’t on his mind, stating that in an 82-game season there was too much else to worry about. But Donovan saw the importance of last night’s victory on through a team-building lens.
“I think our guys have gotten better,” Donovan said. “It’s a really great group to work with. As coaches you want guys who want to get better. I think we’re playing more with comfort and understanding. We are doing a good job making it easier on one another. Credit to them."
The Thunder will take on the Clippers in Oklahoma City at 6 p.m. on Sunday.