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Thunder defensive struggles to contain Harden, Irving in Nets rout

OKLAHOMA CITY — Theo Maledon drilled a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter as it looked like the Thunder were starting to rally.

Maledon’s shot cut the Brooklyn Nets’ 24-point third-quarter lead to 13, giving the Thunder a chance to continue their rally with a defensive stop.

But like most of the night, the defense failed. On the ensuing possession, Nets guard James Harden was fouled on a made 3-point attempt. A minute later, the Nets lead was back to 23.

Once Friday’s game was over, the Thunder defense gave up a season-high in points, falling 147-125 to the Nets.

The Thunder’s defense has been a problem all season. The team currently ranks 21st in the league in defensive rating, giving up 110.7 points per 100 possessions and ranks near the bottom of the league in steals, blocks and points allowed in the paint.

OKC’s outing against Brooklyn was perhaps the team’s worst defensive performance this season. The Nets shot 57% from the field and 42% from beyond 3-point arc with nine players scoring in double figures.

With Kevin Durant sitting out, the Nets relied on Harden and Kyrie Irving, to which the Thunder had no answer defensively. Harden recorded his third triple-double as a member of the Nets, finishing the game with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. Irving also finished with 25 points, as the duo combined to shoot 19 of 30 from the field.

Thunder coach Mark Daigneault tried to use different schemes against the Nets’ star guards to no avail.

“I thought we could’ve been sharper defensively, especially in the first half,” Daigneault said. “But I give them a lot of credit. We put two defenders on them when they had the ball, and they made extra passes and moved the ball. They showed a lot of chemistry and we just couldn’t keep up.”

The Nets offensive took no time to get going, scoring 36 in the first quarter and finishing the half with 76. The team hit triple-digits midway through the third.

Thunder center Al Horford pointed to Harden and Irving’s unselfish play as a reason why they were difficult to defend.

“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They did a good job moving the ball and we didn’t quite have it tonight to slow them down,” Horford said. “We were never able to make up that lead they built. … With that kind of team, you really have to do a better job defensively in order to stay with them.”

While the Thunder’s defense struggled, the offense looked good in stretches. The team shot 47% from the field and 42% from 3.

“I thought offensively we were pretty good,” Daigneault said. “I thought we played with purpose, we attacked the rim, hit outside shots and got to the free-throw line, so we were really balanced.

“We came out of halftime and had some good possessions offensively, but we couldn’t get enough stops to get back in the game. So the problem wasn’t offensively; I thought we played pretty well there.”

Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a solid performance, recording 24 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but Maledon’s offensive performance was the standout performance for the Thunder. Maledon, who started for the second consecutive game, finished with 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting and sank all six of his 3-point attempts.

Daigneault has encouraged Maledon to find his rhythm offensively.

“He’s a confident player. He’s stable and plays at a certain pace,” Daigneault said. “We’ve encouraged him to play with a bit more pop, and I thought he did that tonight. I think a lot of his [3-pointers] came from playing off the ball next to Shai which is why we’re starting him. … He can play on and off the ball.”

The team has been able to overcome its defensive struggles for much of the year en route to its 8-10 record. But the Nets may have reminded the Thunder of their need to tighten things up on that end.

Jesse Crittenden


Follow me @jcritt31

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