Thunder can’t seem to score enough against Mavericks, no matter their lineup

OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite scoring only 92 points, their fewest in nine playoff games, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said he liked the team’s offensive process in their Game 5 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night, a 104-92 final that shoves them into a 3-2 series hole, on the brink of elimination as they head to Dallas on Saturday.

“I’m careful to say I loved a 92-point night,” Daigneault said. “But I did feel like we were bumping up against some hurdles on the offensive end of the floor the last three games. I did feel like tonight we were able to find some cracks. We made them a little bit more uncomfortable. We had them in rotation a little bit more.”

Monday night, the Thunder escaped Dallas with a Game 4 win to steal back home-court advantage despite a generally brutal showing on the offensive end. They went 6-of-17 in the restricted area and 7-of-27 on 3s in the win, surviving because of a stingy defensive effort, a ton of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander mid-rangers and 23 free throws.

But their inability to rev up their offensive engine concerned Daigneault enough that he benched Josh Giddey for the first time in his career. After starting his previous 218 games, Giddey gave way to Isaiah Joe to open Game 5.

It worked in the opening minutes. Joe made a wide-open corner 3 and, with a defender attached to him two possessions later, a paint runway cleared for Gilgeous-Alexander to drive and dunk, scoring at the rim for the first time since Game 3. The Thunder went up 8-2.

But that was their high point. The Mavericks rolled back into the lead within minutes and never trailed. The Thunder were playing catch-up from the 7:59 mark of the first quarter to the final buzzer, missing 30 of their 40 3s as they continually failed to build momentum.

Joe, a 41.6 percent 3-point shooter this season, missed six of his next seven 3s after that first make. Most of those looks were either open or wide open, resulting from either pick-and-pop action (a Joe specialty) or drive-and-kick sprays.

Here’s a killer miss in the third quarter. The Thunder are down 11. Luguentz Dort opens the clip with a quick drive-and-kick to Gilgeous-Alexander from the corner. That leads to a swing to Jalen Williams, another drive into the heart of the paint and a delivery to a wide-open Joe on the right wing for as clean a 3 as you’ll create in the half court. He misses.

Cason Wallace, who is emerging as the fifth closer ahead of Giddey and Joe, missed four of his five 3s after making two big ones in Game 4. Chet Holmgren went 1-of-5 from deep. Dort went 2-of-8. Jalen Williams, a 42.7 percent 3-point shooter this season, missed all three of his 3s.

“This is probably going to sound crazy because we didn’t shoot it well, but I thought our offense was really good,” Williams said. “We didn’t make shots.”

Williams’ struggles are a significant part of the problem. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer but hasn’t exploded in this series, scoring 18, 20, 16, 14 and 12 points in the five games. The lowest of those totals came in Game 5. He’s made only 41 percent of his shots and 31 percent of his 3s. He hasn’t made a 3 since Game 3.

“A lot of that is me,” Williams said. “I didn’t make shots I normally make. I haven’t the whole series. It’s frustrating.”

Holmgren, their third-leading scorer, hasn’t cracked 20 points in this series. He has attempted nine shots only twice and 11 only once in the last three games, struggling to get his shot up against the speed and length of the Mavericks.

This late fourth-quarter possession is an example. The Thunder are down 11 with 2:09 left. It’s desperation time. They generate some good offensive action, which creates this snapshot in time. Dort has just kicked the ball from the corner to the wing to Holmgren. As the ball hits his hand, the closest defender, Derrick Jones Jr., is at the right block.

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But this shot is blocked. Holmgren, adjusting to the speed of playoff basketball and the Dallas length, winds up his 3 slowly and gets it tipped, essentially ending any faint comeback attempt.

Gilgeous-Alexander was productive again. He scored 30 points on 12-of-22 shooting and found a few more cracks to the rim than he had previously. But he isn’t getting enough help. None of his teammates have reached 21 points through five games of this series.

“Jalen and Chet are really good players,” Daigneault said. “This is our first playoff run, their first playoff run. Everything is a learning experience. In the playoffs, because of the nature of it — high-stakes games, well-scouted, same opponent, high-level opponents — there’s no player regardless of where they are in their career that doesn’t struggle at different times over the course of a series.”

That above clip is an example of the defense Gilgeous-Alexander is staring at regularly. He breaks Jones off the dribble, but Dereck Lively II and Luka Doncic immediately collapse, taking away his airspace. He makes the right read and generates an open 3, but it leads to nothing.

“It is very congested,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I feel like I see that a lot though. But it’s definitely an emphasis for them for sure.”

Daigneault said he wasn’t “bursting with joy” about the 92 points, but reiterated several times during his postgame news conference that he felt the Thunder were on the “right track” offensively. They can put that theoretical progress to the test in Game 6 at Dallas. This series isn’t over. But the Thunder are on the brink and, to this point, struggling to score enough points to survive, regardless of how they switch up their lineups.

“I thought we kind of looked like ourselves again stylistically,” Daigneault said. “I actually thought we made pretty good progress in terms of attacks. There were times in Games 2, 3, 4 that it just felt like we were in a headlock offensively. Just jammed up against their defense. Tonight I thought there was way more flow, way more drive and kick. It’s taken us a couple games in this series to calibrate it.”

(Top photo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

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