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Tramel: In his OKC Thunder debut, Mark Daigneault is 'cool, calm, collected' winning regular-season opener

Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault (center) talks with his team in a time out during the second half of a 109-107 win Saturday against the Hornets at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. [Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY Sports]
Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault (center) talks with his team in a time out during the second half of a 109-107 win Saturday against the Hornets at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. [Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY Sports]

The Thunder melted down Saturday night in Charlotte. Melted down like a crucible in back of a pawn shop. Melted down like we’ve never seen before.

A 13-point lead with less than two minutes left in the game was down to nothing with 9.7 seconds left. Tie game.

The only balm in this Thunder season opener was that defeat is the goal. Losing for the lottery.

In those final two minutes, the Thunder committed five straight turnovers, missed one of two foul shots on three straight trips to the line and allowed the Hornets to launch 3-pointers on four straight possessions in the final 35 seconds left. Charlotte made them all, and you got the sinking feeling that this transition season, from relevancy to non-relevancy, was going to be worse than we thought.

But while the Thunder melted down, the man in the mask did not. Mark Daigneault, making his NBA head-coaching debut, kept the leaking boat afloat.

“He was very calm, even when they tied it up,” said Thunder veteran Mike Muscala.

Especially when Charlotte tied it up. After a timeout, Daigneault called not so much a play, but a concept. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going one-on-one against Hornet Cody Martin. And I loved Daigneault’s design — the Thunder didn’t inbound at midcourt. Daigneault gave SGA 94 feet of court to work with; too many coaches condense the space with the game on the line, by inbounding at halfcourt.

Gilgeous-Alexander drove, pulled up — as Martin desperately tried to put on the brakes — and nailed a 22-foot jumper that gave the Thunder a 109-107 victory.

So salute Daigneault for winning his debut, after just the second OKC gavel change since November 2008.

Daigneault’s players did, showering him with water in the victorious locker room.

SGA, who two years ago played for Doc Rivers with the Clippers and last season played for Billy Donovan with the Thunder, gave Daigneault high marks.

“Personally, I didn’t see no difference,” SGA said. “That says a lot about Coach Mark. Composed. We, myself, almost gave the game away. But (Daigneault was) super composed, kept our heads up, kept us confident. He was our leader down the stretch, even though things weren't going the right way. And just in the right mind frame. Cool, calm, collected.”

That certainly jives with outsiders’ impressions of Daigneault. Low-key. Relational. Cerebral.

He’s 35 years old and seems even younger. Looks younger, too, than, say, George Hill and Al Horford, Thunder starters who were born nine and 10 months, respectively, after Daigneault.

Hill, who played superbly in his Thunder debut with 21 points and as many missed shots (one) as turnovers, said Daigneault did “a great job. He’s learning like the rest of us. We’re all new to this. We’re all together, fighting and swinging together. We know he has the best interest for us.”

The players seem to at least be listening. The Thunder a year ago listened to Donovan, but I’m not sure there was a ton of listening in the latter Russell Westbrook years.

Daigneault called the Thunder a “48-minute team,” which was gracious considering the Thunder was a 46-minute team if ever I saw one. But dang it if all four players interviewed after the game repeated Daigneault’s catchphrase.

Hill, SGA, Muscala, Darius Bazley, all referenced Daigneault’s message that basketball is a 48-minute game.

“The way that Coach operates, I see that in practice,” Bazley said. “Seen it last year. All the guys see it every day. Nothing tonight surprised me. Coach, he did a terrific job. What he brings to the table, he brings every day.”

Two things about Daigneault’s debut:

• The halftime adjustments were excellent. OKC’s pick-and-roll defense was not strong in the first half. The Hornets shot 50 percent and scored 59 points.

Then in the second half, Charlotte made just 11 of 45 shots and scored only 32 points until catching fire in the final 70 seconds.

• Daigneault didn’t take his eye off the ball on rotations. This Thunder season is about “progress and improvement and growth,” Daigneault himself said after the game.

So Thunder rookies Aleksej Pokusevski and Theo Maledon kept playing, along with Kenrich Williams and Hamidou Diallo, after they got torched by Charlotte in the first half, when the Thunder B team looked more lost than the Space Family Robinson.

But in the second half, the backups settled down. Maledon made a few plays on offense, Poku made a few plays on defense and Williams hustled like a walkon scholarship seeking the last scholarship on campus.

Without giving it any thought, Daigneault gave himself a C-plus for his debut. That’s not accurate, of course. He coached a fine game, the Thunder won despite an epic meltdown and his players sprayed him down in celebration.

And even if this season goes the way we all think it will go, straight to the bottom of the Western Conference, Daigneault always will have Charlotte.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›