Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stood stoic, with his eyes up. He was internally processing and flushing out in real time his two missed free throws and three turnovers in the preceding two minutes of game play. A 13-point Thunder lead vanished into a tie ball-game with 9.7 seconds remaining due to a myriad of factors, but the Thunder’s third-year guard has been preparing for a “next-play” mentality all off-season for those types of moments.
“I just wanted to clear my head,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “That’s one of the things Coach Mark (Daigneault) has been working on with me going into this new season – no matter how the game is going, having a positive attitude and not wearing your emotions on your sleeve.”
The Thunder’s opponents, the Charlotte Hornets, had been employing a full court press to try to get back into this game, the Thunder’s season opener. Coupling that trapping with a barrage of 3-pointers from Miles Bridges, the Hornets made it 107-107 and Thunder ball with under 10 ticks to go. With the game on the line, the Thunder put the ball back in the hands of Gilgeous-Alexander, who did exactly what he had all night – attack downhill and flip the pressure right back on the Hornets.
The third-year guard used a left-handed in and out dribble, crossed over to his right hand and stopped suddenly just inside the three-point arc before rising up and burying a jumper over Charlotte guard Caleb Martin. It was Gilgeous-Alexander’s eighth field goal of the game and gave the Thunder a 109-107 lead with 1.4 seconds remaining.
“I have a couple moves I like to get to on the iso, and then after that it’s just read and reaction,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished with 24 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists. “(Martin) was backing up so hard, I figured if I stopped on a dime and pulled up it would be hard for him to get a good contest. It’s a shot that I practice a lot – the same foot stop. It went in.”
“That’s Shai,” said second-year forward Darius Bazley, who added a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double. “He brings it every day. I see it in practice. I see it every time we go at each other and compete so I didn’t expect anything different in the game.”
The same approach that Gilgeous-Alexander took to the final possession is what the entire team displayed on defense in the second half. After allowing 59 first half points on 50 percent shooting over the first two quarters, the Thunder forced Charlotte into a 16-of-51 (31.4 percent) effort in the second half. Led by Daigneault, who earned a win in his first game as Thunder head coach, the coaching staff cut film quickly and showed it at halftime. The team was able to adapt by getting up into the ball more, limiting its fouling, contesting shots at the rim and rebounding to take control of the game.
“The coaches did a great job of showing us where we could get better in the short film and then we as players made adjustments and were locked in,” said Gilgeous-Alexander.
“We have to have a ‘what else mentality’,” said veteran guard George Hill, who shot 8-for-9 in the game and 4-of-4 from three for 21 points, becoming just the seventh player in Thunder history to score 20-or-more points in his OKC debut. “That means when things aren’t going our way, what else can we do to get better? When we’re not shooting the ball well, what else can we do? Drive it harder, play smarter, play more together.”
It took poise and togetherness to shake off the tough defensive first half, but the Thunder took the right mental approach and got contributions throughout the roster – like 13 rebounds from Al Horford, a pair of 3-pointers from Mike Muscala and some grittiness from Lu Dort, Hamidou Diallo and Kenrich Williams to build a lead.
That same type of composure was required of Gilgeous-Alexander just to put himself in position to make the late shot. Regardless of the fact that the 23-footer dropped, it was the Thunder lead playmaker’s ability to re-set himself quickly that freed up his mind to even generate a comfortable look. Each game, Thunder players will be tested with similar challenges. Fortunately, the whole team will be there for one another to reinforce the professional habits that the group displayed in game number one of 2020-21.
“We’re all learning. We’re in each of our teammates’ corner, good or bad,” Hill said. “This season is going to have a lot of ups and downs, wins and losses, but the more we can stay together, be resilient and be on the same chord, we’ll be fine.”
“We’ve just got to keep running through the finish line in all these games,” said Daigneault. “They are 48 minutes long and we’ve got to play all 48 minutes, regardless of the circumstance.”