Three-and-Lu D: Dort Buries Game-Winner to Down Spurs

Lu Dort hadn’t had a shot that wide open in six months. Last season, and especially in a playoff series against the Houston Rockets, opponents dared Dort to shoot 3s, identifying him as a rookie defensive specialist. On Wednesday night, he got one of those uncovered looks again, but this time it was with the seconds rapidly spinning off the clock.

Out of the hands of Al Horford came a pass. Dort caught, lifted and launched. As the ball splashed through the hoop, capping a 102-99 home win over the San Antonio Spurs, the second-year Thunder guard fell onto his back in euphoria, with his delirious teammates rushing over to dogpile on him.

“It felt good when it left my hand,” said Dort. “I was just staring at the ball and when it dropped in, I dropped too.”

The first arrivers were Darius Bazley and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was the inbounds passer on Dort’s first-ever game-winning 3, making him just one of three players ever in Thunder history with a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“They were all yelling in my face. Baze was really close to my face,” Dort laughed. “It just felt great seeing my teammates happy for me.”

“It really felt like a March Madness buzzer-beater,” said Horford. “A lot of energy. A lot of joy. A little surreal.”

Just 3.9 seconds stood on the clock when Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault called a timeout. Horford and rookie guard Théo Maledon had just forced a Patty Mills double-dribble in a tie-ball game, wrenching a last-shot opportunity away from the NBA’s least turnover-prone team. Horford received the inbounds pass, spun against an ill-timed lunge at the ball by Spurs center Jakob Poeltl and kicked it to the corner after Mills crashed over from his defensive assignment, Dort.

“Once I saw Poeltl overplayed I just decided to go to the basket and as soon as I saw Lu’s defender commit, the ball was out and he made a huge shot,” Horford explained.

The mental preparation was there for the Thunder. Horford noted that the Spurs had a foul to give, so he and his teammates expected an aggressive defense that would hawk for a steal. Dort mentioned that he knew Mills might help over on Horford, so he needed to be ready for a pass. That mental preparation applies to the work Dort has done to remain engaged and confident with his shot through the natural ups and downs of his shooting this season.

In December and January, Dort got off to a blistering start, shooting 40-of-105 (38.1 percent) from behind the arc, above league-average. In February, as the dogged schedule has put the Thunder to the test and Dort has appeared higher on opposing scouting reports, those 3-point numbers trailed off to 16-for-71 (22.5 percent). That was prior to Wednesday night’s 4-for-7 showing from deep, capped by a 3-for-4 fourth quarter where he scored 9 of his 16 total points.

“For these players it's about being in these situations and just drinking up the competition and learning the lessons,” said Mark Daigneault, who noted that Dort missed a similar late-game 3 against the Lakers earlier this season. “The more you're in these situations, the more comfortable you get and I give Lou a lot of credit for his resilience, through the ups and downs of his shooting this season.”

In addition to the game-winner, two more of Dort’s 3-pointers against the Spurs came inside the final four minutes of play, with the crunch-time pressure ratcheted to full-tilt. Both of his wing 3s came from the same spot on the right side of the floor, dropping in at the 3:36 mark (on another of Horford’s seven assists) and at the 3:10 mark on a pass from Maledon.

Dort, at 21 years old “starts at the bottom of the mountain every night” as Daigneault says when charged with defending the opposition’s best scorer and is doing the job at All-Defensive Team levels. On the other end, he’s emerging as a true 3-point threat and an attacker who can run pick-and-roll and put pressure on the rim.

“He's really an elite defender and every night he has the biggest challenge on the other team and he takes that along,” Horford said. “I believe that even though he's still very young, he's one of the better defenders in the league. He's proven that so far. I just think that offensively the game continues to come to him. He continues to work and get after it. He came through for us in the clutch when we needed him. He made some big shots time after time.”

“Lu’s changed it around, changed the narrative,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It’s just him working hard, not getting down on himself, being confident and when you work hard, confidence comes with it. You’re seeing it before your eyes.”

The fact that Dort hit not only hit those shots but is a fully-trusted primary option for a clutch 3 speaks to the dedication to the work he’s put in and the development he’s undergone since arriving in Oklahoma City. It was the six-day-a-week workouts between August and November, the countless hours with Thunder development coaches and the mental toughness that served as primers for Dort’s heroic fourth quarter.

“For all of our players the loop that we're in is preparing as hard as we can, then competing and then reflecting and learning,” Daigneault said. “No one is a better example of someone that's committed to that process than Lou.”

“As it relates to shooting, he puts the work in and he prepares. He goes out there and takes the shots,” Daigneault added. “He competes and then when he when he has a tough shooting night, he gets back in the gym and just repeats the process. The consistency of his approach will produce consistent results over time.”