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Mar 20, 2024 12:09 am

Roaring Thunder eye continued success vs. Jazz

Luguentz Dort

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren have undoubtedly been the driving forces behind the Oklahoma City Thunder’s rise to the top of the Western Conference standings this season.

But as they’ve surged since the All-Star break, the Thunder’s two other regular starters — Luguentz Dort and Josh Giddey — have played bigger roles on the offensive side.

The Thunder (47-20) are looking for that trend to continue Wednesday when they host the Utah Jazz (29-39).

Dort’s growth, especially, has been critical for Oklahoma City’s surge. In his first four seasons, Dort never shot better than 34.3 percent on 3-pointers.

His improvement was evident early in the season as he shot 39 percent from beyond the arc on 4.8 attempts per game in 52 games before the break. Since then, however, he has been elite: 49.3 percent on 5.5 attempts per game over 13 games.

Only Boston’s Sam Hauser has a better 3-point shooting percentage (52.2 percent) since the break among players who have averaged at least five 3-point tries per game during that span.

While Dort’s offense has taken a step forward, so has Gilgeous-Alexander’s defense. He leads the league with two steals per game.

“Steals are valuable,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said when asked about Gilgeous-Alexander’s improvement. “When a possession ends with zero points for the other team, and we’ve led the league in turnovers or we’ve been up there. So winning that battle has been a huge part of our defense. It’s given us some margin for error in other areas, so that’s huge.”

The Thunder lead the league, forcing 15 turnovers per game, while the Jazz go into Wednesday near the bottom of the league in forced turnovers at 11.6 per game.

Gilgeous-Alexander has five steals in three games against Utah this season.

Wednesday’s home game is the Thunder’s last before they play eight of 10 away from home. They then close the regular season with four consecutive home games. Oklahoma City has won back-to-back games and 12 of 15 and is in a tight race with Minnesota and Denver atop the Western Conference. The Nuggets beat the Timberwolves 115-112 on Tuesday night, knocking Minnesota (47-22) a game behind Oklahoma City and Denver (48-21).

The Jazz have dropped back-to-back games and are just 3-13 since Feb. 6.

Utah is hoping Lauri Markkanen’s return can help down the stretch. Markkanen had 22 points and 12 rebounds — but six turnovers — Monday in a loss to Minnesota; he played nearly 31 minutes in his return after missing six games with a quadriceps strain.

While the Jazz aren’t likely to contend for a play-in spot, Markkanen said he hoped there would be benefits from his return down the line.

“I need to work on some things. I need to get better,” Markkanen said. “At the same time, I need to build chemistry with the young guys and really get that on-court experience against the other teams, not just practice. I think we can finish out this year strong, get better, and set a standard for us.”

Wednesday’s meeting is the final one between the teams this season. The Thunder won two of the first three, including 134-120 in Oklahoma City on Dec. 11.

–Field Level Media

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