OKLAHOMA CITY — Alesej Pokusevski stole a Grizzlies pass and took off in transition, seemingly flying through the air before dunking the ball.
It was Pokusevski’s second steal early in the second half, turning both turnovers into four points to give the Thunder a 12-point lead midway through the third quarter. The short run built on the Thunder’s halftime advantage as the team looked prepared to switch to cruise control.
Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins called a timeout, which ultimately was the spark his team needed, just before the Grizzlies rattled off a 34-9 run to take a nine-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Thunder were out-scored 33-20 in the third quarter and never matched the Grizzlies’ energy the rest of the game, losing 116-107 Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Despite missing two starters in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley, the Thunder controlled the game for the first two-and-a-half quarters. The Thunder led by four at halftime, and limited standout guard Ja Morant to just two points in the first half.
Turnovers in the third period sank the Thunder, as the Grizzlies scored 24 points off the Thunder’s 14 giveaways. The Grizzlies also scored 20 fast-break points compared to the Thunder’s 16.
“Give them credit, I thought they kind of weathered the storm,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “We jumped on them really early in the third quarter and they weathered it. I thought we really competed hard and I thought our intentions were good, but we got a little sloppy with the ball and in transition. When we got settled in the half court and on defense, I thought we did a good job of controlling the game.
“I thought the ball movement and execution was sharp tonight, but there were just enough plays we didn’t finish that kind of ignited their breaks. That’s why transition defense is important. We’re not going to shoot like we did the other night [against the Timberwolves], and being able to get back and get your defense set is really important.”
Pokusevski put together another notable game for the Thunder in his eighth consecutive start, finishing with 13 points, three rebounds and five assists. Luguentz Dort finished with 14 points but struggled from the field, shooting 6 of 17.
Pokusevski has started every game since returning from the G-League bubble, an experience that Daigneault said has helped him improve tremendously.
“He’s got great length and great instincts and he’s usually in the right spots defensively,” Daigneault said. “He’s really slowed down, from his shooting to his decision making. His pace has really slowed down since the G-league bubble. He’s definitely learned the lessons, he’s just got to slow down and keep improving.”
Despite limiting Morant, the Thunder defense couldn’t contain Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen, who finished with 25 and 20 points, respectively. Jonas Valanciunas recorded 16 points and 15 rebounds.
With injuries and resting plans keeping players out of the lineup at different times this season, a lot of pressure has been put on the team’s young players to perform this season. But the improvement from players like Dort and Pokusevski has been evident as the season has progressed, which has continued to be a focus for the Thunder amid tough losses like Wednesday.
“The biggest thing is getting game experience,” Thunder center Al Horford said. “You can drill 100 times and do different things, but you have to learn. I feel like the game is slowing down for them. [Pokusevski] is doing a good job of reading the defense and making the right play. The more games they play, the better they’ll get. You can tell a difference from the preseason until now. It’s been positive growth.”