The average age of the Thunder’s five on the floor in the final minutes on Sunday afternoon was just over 21 years old. Lu Dort, Théo Maledon, Ty Jerome, Aleksej Pokuševski and Isaiah Roby stood across the floor from a Houston Rockets trio of 10-year veteran in John Wall, 28-year-old Victor Oladipo and fifth-year phenom Christian Wood.
The Thunder had led for most of the day. While the Rockets surged back into it to tie the game three times, Houston hadn’t led since the 4:22 mark of the first quarter, so when Wall’s jumper with 2:46 remaining gave the Rockets a 110-109 lead, the game pressure was on. From there on out, with the three-guard lineup at the helm, the Thunder turned the ball over just once and gutted out a 114-112 victory even in the absence of its primary scorers like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Al Horford.
“Great poise,” said head coach Mark Daigneault. “We got a shot every time down. That’s the key in those possession games is getting quality looks and execute on offense.”
Dort commanded the offense throughout the night, including down the stretch, racking up 23 points on 45.5 percent shooting with three assists and only two turnovers. He barreled into the lane for hard-charging buckets, banked in runners off the glass and knocked down a trio of 3-pointers to keep the scoreboard moving for the Thunder’s offense. Inside the final two minutes, however, he set the offense in motion but it was Maledon who completed the plays with two crucial soft-touch driving layups.
“Everybody has to step up,” said Dort. “We’ve got to score the ball as a team. The goal is really to stay confident and be really aggressive.”
“That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to work on, just making good decisions at the end of the game,” he added. “I feel like I did good, not forcing it too much.”
In the final moments though, with the intensity ramped up from an opponent desperate not to lose their 20th-straight game, Dort was able to maintain his hallmark attribute – physical and disruptive defense. Even with 33 minutes’ worth of playmaking responsibility on his shoulders, Dort rallied enough energy to make a couple of game-saving plays for his squad.
With nine seconds remaining and the Thunder up by just one, Wall crossed over to his right hand, drove middle and got Dort on his hip, but the 6-foot-4 Thunder guard used the entirety of his wingspan to stretch out and get a hand on Wall’s finger-roll layup attempt.
“It was a great play by Wall, just attacking me and getting to the rim. He kind of beat me,” said Dort. “I just had to recover and not give up on the play to block the shot.”
“That was a heck of a play and a great second effort,” said Daigneault. “He was out of the play a little bit but came back and made a play on the ball.”
Dort’s slap from behind sent the ball careening towards the backboard, but the ball pinged off the rim and away from danger. The entire Thunder bench erupted as Pokuševski collected the loose ball and Dort wisely, and fervently, called for a timeout. As Dort returned to the Thunder bench, his teammates mobbed him.
“Honestly, that was a heroic play. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was so clutch. I told Lu after the game, ‘You’re a monster, bro,’ said 21-year-old center Moses Brown, who finished with a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double. “It’s a testament to him. It just shows he’s willing to do whatever it takes to see us get through. He’s not afraid to step up and do his part.”
“It was fun just to see all the guys excited. I was just like, ‘the game isn’t done yet!’,” Dort recalled. “It was fun seeing all the guys happy for me for making a play at the end.”
As Dort reminded, there was still time left on the clock. After jockeying for position on the ensuing sideline out of bounds play, Dort took a forearm shiver as he cut to free up Pokuševski who got fouled The 19-year-old rookie made one of two free throws, which set up the final possession for the Rockets with 4.9 seconds remaining. In the NBA world, that’s an eternity.
Maybe it was the gritty, tenacious defense that Dort had played on Wall, forcing the Rockets guard into 7-for-17 shooting up to that point. Perhaps it was the frustration with Dort’s defense that goaded Wall into a technical foul earlier in the night. Or it could have been the lingering thoughts of Dort swatting his layup one possession before that caused Wall to rush out to nearly half-court to catch the ball, then settle up for a 29-foot 3-point attempt to try to finish off Houston’s comeback with a heave.
With Dort’s hand right in Wall’s face on a textbook shot contest, Wall didn’t get a great look at the rim. The ball clanked off it and OKC celebrated a shorthanded win, with Dort once again showing his bona fides as a burgeoning two-way threat.
“He’s got great work ethic. He’s incredibly humble. He’s incredibly competitive. He’s all about the team,” Daigneault gushed. “He’s got every possible intangible that you would ever want in a young basketball player that’s predictive of improvement.”