SGA Takes the Lead on Both Ends in 4th Quarter
Before this season began, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander evaluated the opportunity in front of him. It wasn’t just that he’d have more responsibility or that he’d have the keys to the offense for 30-some minutes every night. The third-year guard’s top focus was becoming a two-way player – a leader that can be relied upon on defense just as much as he could in the scoring column.
“The biggest thing is bringing energy and leadership on both ends of the floor,” Gilgeous-Alexander said back in mid-December. “The player I want to be, and know I can be, that caliber, does so. It’s just something that I think is required for me to be who I want to be.”
On Saturday night, with the Thunder shorthanded for the second night in a row against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gilgeous-Alexander found a way to step up for his team in all aspects of the game, continuing to make his case to become a first-time All-Star.
After an 83-point explosion over the first 24 minutes, a Thunder record for a half, the offense ground to a halt in the third quarter with just 13 total Thunder points on 6-for-24 shooting. The pace the Thunder had humming in the first half was gone, as was the accompanying crisp and zippy ball movement. The energy in the Thunder’s game had plateaued, which will happen over the course of an NBA season, especially in a wacky mini-series like the Thunder played against Minnesota, when it had just eight and then nine available players on back-to-back nights.
Yet with all the game pressure foisted upon the Thunder after Minnesota came roaring back from 23-point deficit to take a 106-100 lead with 7:42 to go, it was Gilgeous-Alexander who lived up to those lofty expectations he placed on himself to begin the season.
“Just be relentless. Play downhill. Play with force. Crack down defensively,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of his mindset late.
Off of a Lu Dort offensive rebound, Gilgeous-Alexander nailed a 20-foot jumper, then followed up a Minnesota miss with a hard charging drive that he finished with grace – a righty bank shot while gliding to the left of the rim. That bucket forced a Timberwolves timeout, but it set this game up to be played within five points for the remainder of regulation. Inside of five minutes with that five-point margin is the definition of clutch time by NBA stats-heads.
Coming into the game, Gilgeous-Alexander had racked up 32 points (17th in the NBA) and seven assists (ninth in the NBA) in just 25 clutch minutes this year while racking up 18 made free throws and sealing 6 of 9 possible clutch time wins for OKC. Tonight, when his team needed some offensive verve, Gilgeous-Alexander shook off any linger effects of a knee injury that caused him to miss the last two games, dug into a deep reserve of energy and helped account for 11 of the Thunder’s 13 clutch time points with four buckets of his own, a free throw and an assist.
“I just tried to be aggressive and make the right basketball play for my team,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who finished with game-highs in three categories with 31 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. “Me being the point guard, I wanted to get the juices going, play downhill, play aggressive. I think my teammates fed off of it.”
“Shai has been in a lot of close games and he's learning how to close those games on the ball and as a primary creator,” said Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault. “Shai’s ability to succeed to this point in those situations is kind of a microcosm of what I’ve talked about with the team – which is we're all about progressing and learning and growing. Learning from mistakes, learning from the things we do well and just trying to improve, day by day.”
Gilgeous-Alexander’s first clutch basket came on a total scramble of a possession. On a drive the ball squirted loose, but he stayed with the play, used his length to deflect a Timberwolves save attempt and had the presence of mind to not only recognize the shot clock hadn’t reset, but also used some incredible court awareness and patience to pump fake at the bucket and finish around would-be shot blockers. Once again, with momentum swinging back to the Thunder from a Gilgeous-Alexander score, Minnesota called timeout.
Less than a minute later, however, it was clear that Shai’s swagger hadn’t been depleted in the slightest. He attacked middle, flipping in a layup plus the foul, scored on a driving runner and then two possessions later shook his man and went in uncontested for a two-handed slam. Those open freeway dunks have been a shockingly common occurrence this season given opponents’ focus on Gilgeous-Alexander as OKC’s top scorer.
“It comes natural for him. Down the stretch we needed some tough buckets and every time he was called upon he was right there with the ball, making a play, making a bucket,” said guard Hamidou Diallo, who has known Gilgeous-Alexander since they played together at the University of Kentucky. “That’s who he is and that's what he brings to the table as a basketball player and as a teammate.”
Heading down to the other end of the floor, the 6-foot-6, 181-pound point guard did his job and switched onto 6-foot-9, 264-pound Timberwolves center Naz Reid. All night long, Reid had hurt the Thunder down low, scoring 29 points and taking advantage of the fact the OKC was missing Al Horford and Isaiah Roby to start the game and Mike Muscala when he left with an injury in the fourth quarter. That left the Thunder playing five guards together on the floor, so Shai swelled up his chest, took the contact from Reid and forced a miss on an 8-foot hook shot, the type of attempt that had gone down all night for Minnesota’s bruiser down low.
“You could see that he wanted really to win that game and he showed it,” said Théo Maledon, a 19-year-old rookie apprentice. “It was great to be behind him pushing and just looking at him going, and the team following his lead.”
“I give him a lot of credit,” Daigneault said. “Obviously, he took the game over a little bit offensively tonight but the thing that is so impressive about him is he's so ambitious and he wants to be great. He wants to know what it takes to be great and he wants to do it. He walks the walk with his work ethic and his humility.”
On the next possession, Gilgeous-Alexander found a cutting Darius Bazley for a reverse layup that put the Thunder ahead for good with 1:16 to go, setting up a flurry of empty trips for both teams over the ensuing minute of play. With 5.2 seconds left, Minnesota had one last opportunity and went to Reid on the block once again. Gilgeous-Alexander was there, fortifying himself up under an 80-pound differential to keep Reid a crucial foot or two further from the rim than the Timberwolves center would have liked. Reid’s shot went awry and the final defensive rebound caromed into Gilgeous-Alexander’s hands.
“I just wanted to try to get a stop,” he said. “We were switching one through five so no matter who it was, we were going to have a guard on him. Whoever it was had to take it personal and get a stop. It just ended up being me and we got it done.”
“It starts with that right there, the desire, that's a huge part of defense,” said Daigneault. “Defense is a sacrificial act. It doesn't get a lot of clout or status and so you really have to care about competing and winning in order to defend. That's a testament to his competitiveness.”
The final buzzer sounded but before his postgame interview on Fox Sports Oklahoma, Gilgeous-Alexander crouched down to collect himself, letting go of an emotional, tiring, fulfilling performance.
Shai had left it all on the floor for his team. On Monday in Los Angeles, as the Thunder’s season rolls on, he’ll be ready to do it again.