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When my kids grow up and ask me what the greatest underdog movies of all time are, I will be fully prepared. I recorded over my VHS copies of Rocky and The Karate Kid with the Fox Sports Oklahoma broadcasts of the past two Thunder games.
Down Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and George Hill, OKC had no business keeping competitive with a red hot Rockets team on Wednesday night that had won six games in a row and thumped the Thunder by thirty two nights before. Lu Dort hurt his knee after only nine minutes on the court. Down three of their four best players, OKC led by 20-30 for most of the second half and won by 17.
Hang a banner in The Peake because that win was more impressive and less likely than any of the Thunder’s five Northwest Division titles.
The injury report for Friday night simply read “free winny for Minny.”
The Thunder only had the league minimum eight players available. SGA, Dort, and Hill remained out and Theo Maledon was added to the report. Let’s deep dive into Friday night’s starting lineup.
Point guard: Hamidou Diallo, a second round bench player who has never played the 1 and has split his three year career playing shooting guard and small forward.
Shooting Guard: Kenrich Williams, an undrafted third year player who started the season as the third string power forward.
Small Forward: Darius Bazley, a late first round sophomore playing out of position.
Power Forward: Isaiah Roby, a second round sophomore who played 10 minutes his rookie season and began this year as the third string center.
Center: Al Horford, supposedly washed 34 year old vet, okay this dude is awesome and so is his sister and you should totally listen to the latest Daily Thunder Podcast with Anna Horford as the special guest.
The bench consisted of Darius Miller, Justin Jackson and Mike Muscala.
OKC had zero point guards. OKC had two shooting guards, one who can’t shoot and one who had played 24 minutes over the past two seasons combined. The crazy eight OKC rolled out included two starters, three second stringers and three third stringers. Eight is enough, but this was rough.
Sure, the Wolves were down KAT, but that doesn’t scratch the surface of OKC’s nine live bodies lost to the injury report or the G League. Minnesota still had a four man wolf pack of D’Angelo Russell, a 24 year old former All Star, Anthony Edwards, the #1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, Malik Beasley, dating Scottie Pippen’s wife off the court and averaging more points per game than Pippen’s career on the court, and Ricky Rubio, one of Russ’s rogue gallery of arch rivals.
Just like Balboa’s first film, the Thunder and the Wolves traded blows throughout the four round bout. Rocky and Apollo knocked each other down in the final moments and the audience had no idea who would wind up the victor. Horford hit a 3 to the tie the game with 25.7 seconds left. Hami had a chance to hit the knockout blow with a steal and fast break, but the Wolves dodged the punch. Russell responded with a 3 in the final moments. Diallo missed a game tying 3 at the buzzer. Much like Creed, the favored Wolves technically came out on top, but everyone watching at home agreed that the OKC Balboas were the champs.
So how did a squad of prospects, cast offs and journeymen playing out of position beat a Rockets team that has won seven of their last eight games and lose on a last second 3 pointer to a Wolves team led by lottery talent?
Enter Coach Mark Daigneault.
This Thunder team even fully healthy is purposely outmanned on a nightly basis. Sam Presti traded away Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari to in his 3D chess quest to Fade4Cade. SGA, Horford, Hill and Dort range from good to great, but the Thunder have neither the top end talent nor the depth to compete with most teams most nights.
But this Thunder team even not fully healthy out-efforts every team on a nightly basis. They play hard, they play smart, and they play together. Shai has taken a leap into stardom. Dort has taken a leap into “core piece keeper.” And Diallo’s development is the number one bullet point on Daigneault’s resume.
The young players have gotten better. The old players have bought in. The middle aged players are ready to step up any given night.
Effort, development, hustle, buying in, smart play, sharing the ball, cohesiveness. Credit the players for all of these traits. But these are all characteristics typically attributed to a head coach.
Yes, I do believe in miracles, Al Michaels. But not because of Coach Herb Brooks, nor good coach Scott Brooks. Lou Brown was major league, but he’s got nothing on Coach Mark Daigneault, who has the Thunder juuust a bit outside the playoffs. So get off the Fighting Irish’s shoulders, Rudy. Put down the mic and walk back across 8 Mile, B-Rabbit. There’s a new greatest underdog story in my tape collection.
- Up next: Rocky II tonight at The Peake. (Spoiler alert: Balboa won the rematch.)