It would take a season-high 24 lead changes to determine a winner in Sunday afternoon’s matchup. A pair of undrafted Montreal natives took the spotlight in the scoring column while the Thunder’s rookie Aleksej Pokuševski put his versatile game on full display.
It was raining 3s in sunny Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon. Both the Raptors and the Thunder came out of the gates shooting at hyper-efficient clips from behind the arc. OKC went 6-for-10 in the first frame in large part to its sophomore guard Lu Dort who exploded for an incredible 21 points in his first 11 minutes of playing time. The Montreal native went a perfect 7-for-7 from the field which included a spotless 5-for-5 performance from deep. The 21-point outburst put Dort among exclusive company as one of just seven players in OKC history to record 20 or more points in a single quarter.
"He really had it going in the first,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “He obviously made jump shots, which is what got him going in Utah, but he's diversified his game. He's gotten to the rim and finished. He's made some nice plays as a creator. So when he's kind of got his floor game going and he's making the right plays and he's getting to the rim, he's getting to the line, he's mixing in the catching shoot threes, that's when he's at his best. I thought he did that early and then they cranked it up on him a little bit.”
“Really just get to my spots and then when my teammates found me, just had confidence to knock it down,” said Dort.
Three of Dort’s five 3-pointers were assisted by rookie forward Aleksej Pokuševski in the first quarter. One of which included a no-look, one-handed cross court pass zipped to Dort on the right wing. Poku put his well-rounded game on full display early on with four assists.
“He's playing with a lot of force. He's staying simple but he's finding the open man,” said Daigneault. “He found Lu early and his floor game was excellent tonight.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the floor, there was another undrafted Montreal native who was putting on an offensive show. Raptors forward Chris Boucher went toe-to-toe with Dort in the first quarter. While Dort finished with 21, Boucher opened the game with 17 and wouldn’t slow down for the rest of the game.
Toronto began to turn the tides midway through the contest. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Boucher at the end of the second quarter cut the Thunder’s double-digit lead to just seven going into the locker room. By the third quarter, the Thunder’s once 12-point lead dissolved in as Toronto gained a one-point advantage. It was a 14-5 run sparked by a 10 point third-quarter effort from Gary Trent Jr. who would finish the game with 23 points.
Crunch time in NBA games takes on an entirely different life than the previous 43 minutes of game play. Margins for error narrow, possessions become infinitely more valuable and time turns into an extra defender. The Thunder hasn’t found itself in many clutch-time games since the All-Star break which made Sunday’s series of events all the more important for the young, developing group on the floor.
There had been a season-high 24 lead changes between the Thunder and the Raptors leading into the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Each big-time bucket by the Thunder was answered with an equally eye-popping shot by Toronto.
Rookie Théo Maledon gave the Thunder a three-point lead after he dropped in an and-one layup with four minutes left in the game. The play gave the Thunder a brief moment of momentum, but Toronto snuffed it out before OKC could take advantage.
After Maledon’s and-one, Toronto responded with an 8-0 scoring run to build up a five-point lead with just 33 seconds remaining in the game. Despite a pair of free throws from Lu Dort to cut the game to three points, a dagger 3-pointer by fellow Montreal native Chris Boucher put the Raptors up six with just 11 seconds remaining. Boucher finished with a game-high 31 points, 10 of which came in the final 12 minutes.
“I really think it came down to getting stops late in the game,” said Kenrich Williams. “I think overall we were getting good shots. We had some open looks but they just didn’t fall. That’s part of the game.”
"These are close games that we're trying to close with guys that are in different roles that they haven't been in. They've been in the situation before but probably not in the role that they're in and we've just got to learn from it,” said Daigneault. “The possession game, the last six minutes of games, is a different animal on both ends of the floor. It's way more about execution. The physicality goes up. It's a really different feel and game than the floor game minutes one through 42. So it's just a lesson that every player has to learn.”
Play of the Game
There was a sequence of eye-catching plays on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter worthy of Play of the Game recognition. It started with a bucket by Bazley who finished the game with 16 points. The Thunder’s second-year forward missed his first attempt at the rim, remained relentless on the glass to get his own rebound then with both feet flat on the ground, elevated for a dunk over the Toronto defenders.
On the ensuing possession, Trent Jr., hungry for a response to the impressive play by Bazley, attacked the rim with his usual explosiveness. However, waiting for him at the basket was the 7-foot Serbian who had already logged three blocks in the game. As soon as Trent elevated, he was met with both forearms of Pokuševski who completely erased any whisper of a shot attempt from Trent Jr.
Stat of the Night6
As if eight points, five assists and seven rebounds wasn’t enough of a well-rounded stat line, Pokuševski also swatted away a career-high six blocks. The effort marks the most by a rookie in OKC history and the most by a rookie in the league this season.
Overall, Poku became the first NBA rookie since 2004 to record a stat line of five or more rebounds, points, assists and blocks.
“Playing defense is something that I want to try to be better at to help the team,” said Pokuševski. “Blocks, using my length is something that I can do great so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
"It's just a sign of progress for him,” said Daigneault. “If you zoom out, and you look at things in totality, the fact that he's here in April and blocking six shots and protecting the rim and guarding his spot and playmaking the way that he was tonight, huge, huge progress”
Quotes of the Night
“We had a lot of really good moments. We ticked forward in a couple areas that we tried to point out and just obviously didn't execute well enough, probably, down the stretch to win that game. But they keep fighting and they keep competing and they get themselves up for every game and ready for every game. That's what we have to do, especially during a tough stretch. This is a character test. These guys have done a great job of just kind of getting back to zero and zero every day. We've just got to continue to do that. We have no other option.”
Just two stops remain for the Thunder on its four-game home stand. After a short trip to Tampa Bay, the Thunder closes out its back-to-back in Washington to take on the Wizards before closing out the road stint in Indiana against the Pacers on Wednesday.