Thunder brushed off questions about youth, inexperience, in first-round playoff sweep of Pelicans

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the playoffs facing questions about their relative youth and playoff inexperience.

Four games later, the Thunder is on to the second round after a convincing sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans.

“That’s another thing for us to not think about,” Thunder forward Jalen Williams said. “We’re coming in to compete — no matter how old we are.”

The average age on the Thunder roster was less than 24 years old when the playoffs began. But coach Mark Daigneault, named NBA coach of the year this week, has been quick to point out that youth and maturity are not mutually exclusive.

“We have a mature team. We have a committed team,” Daigneault said. “We’ve got an uncommon group of people and players.”

That maturity was on full display in the way the Thunder have committed to defense, holding the Pelicans to 92 or fewer points in each game of the first round.

“Just a great defensive series by everybody that stepped on the court,” Daigneault said. “I was curious to see what version of ourselves we’d bring into the series and we were very much in character.”

The Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by winning 57 games and edging out defending champion Denver in a tie-breaker.

In the first round, Oklahoma City dispatched the 49-win Pelicans, albeit with New Orleans’ leading scorer, star power forward Zion Williamson, sidelined by a hamstring injury that occurred during the Western Conference play-in tournament.

“Obviously, with the injury to Williamson, that changed the complexion of their team coming into the series,” Daigneault said. “I thought they really competed, played hard and tested us in a lot of different ways.”

Thunder shooting guard Lu Dort further bolstered his reputation as a physical defender, holding Pelicans’ high scoring wing Brandon Ingram well below his usual scoring average of nearly 21 points per game.

Ingram averaged 14.3 points in the series, topping out at 19 points in Game 3.

Meanwhile, Thunder offensive leaders Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams each averaged better than 20 points per game and saw their performances complemented by steady production from Josh Giddey and rookie center Chet Holmgren.

Game 1 was a relative struggle for Oklahoma City, which escaped with a 94-92 victory. But the Thunder won Games 2 and 3 by 32 and 21 points before closing out the series with an tougher, eight-point victory on the road against a Pelicans squad that looked unwilling to capitulate in front of its own fans.

In the middle of the fourth quarter, the Pelicans led by five and the New Orleans crowd was engaged. That’s when Oklahoma City turned the game on its head with an 18-2 run fueled as much by stifling defense as clutch shooting.

As the final minutes ticked off the game clock, Pelicans fans filed out while Thunder fans who were clustered not far from the Oklahoma City bench could be heard barking, as they’ve been known to do recently as a way to honor their team’s effort.

Now the Thunder will have time to rest before learning of their second-round opponent — either the Los Angeles Clippers or Dallas Mavericks, whose series is tied 2-2.

“We were never worried about the media or the narratives around our team,” Thunder guard Josh Giddey said. “We knew the talent we have in our locker room is good enough to go with anyone around the league.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA

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