“There’s no 26-point shot,” said Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but as his pump-fake, step-through, banked-in heave beat the third quarter buzzer and sent the Paycom Center crowd into a frenzy, it sure felt like more than the three points that flashed on the scoreboard.
The Gilgeous-Alexander 3 capped a 20-6 third quarter run that was a continuation of a possession-by-possession mentality the Thunder displayed as it stormed back from 26 down in the second quarter against a vaunted Los Angeles Lakers squad for a 123-115 win to end the homestand.
As the Thunder tries to build habits in this young roster that will sustain them through thick and thin for years to come, Wednesday’s second night of a back-to-back against the most experienced team in the NBA was a perfect test. Just like Tuesday night, when the Thunder got up early on a veteran-laden Golden State Warriors team before losing steam in the second half, the comeback against the Lakers was a lesson in just how long a 48-minute game can be.
“We want to play to a standard regardless of circumstance,” said head coach Mark Daigneault. “That's critically important with a team that is inexperienced as we are as we’re growing and forming.”
In the early going the Thunder was a step off on defense, over-committing and giving up lob dunks to the enormous Lakers. The offense wasn’t sharp, as OKC only notched 19 first quarter points. But as the second unit took charge in the second quarter, rookie Josh Giddey found Kenrich Williams on a quick-hitting backdoor cut then hit Derrick Favors for two buckets down low. That flurry set up a 12-2 Thunder burst heading into halftime that cut Los Angeles’ lead to a manageable 16.
“A a young group, it speaks volumes to how we're tracking as a team,” said Giddey of the resilience. “We have a really young, hungry group of guys… We can't let one quarter or one half define us.”
Forward Darius Bazley kickstarted the Thunder’s dominant third quarter – a 41-23 advantage for the period – with one of his four made 3-pointers on the night, as he burst out to an efficient season-high 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting to go with six rebounds and four steals. Everyone was getting into the mix, as Gilgeous-Alexander found Favors cutting to the rim and Dort for a 3 while Giddey dropped in one of his floaters, which have been sinking with more frequency the last few games.
Any comeback needs a bit of magic, and it’s often brought on by the right spirit, which the Thunder played with collectively in the third. The ball was moving, players were setting each other up with passes in shooting pockets and the defense was dug in. With all five players primed to attack, the ball went to the Thunder’s primary scorer.
Through the first two and a half quarters Gilgeous-Alexander let the game come to him, but when pressed into some late shot clock situations in the third quarter, he delivered. Gilgeous-Alexander notched 17 of his 27 total points in the third frame. That included 13 points in the final three minutes of the quarter, featuring a hard-charging driving layup, a pair of 26-foot 3-pointers, three free throws and then the lean-in bank shot from behind the arc to beat the buzzer and give the Thunder its first lead of the night. OKC never trailed again after that.
“At the moment I was feeling hot,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “It felt good. I didn't know it was going to bank. I'll definitely take it for sure.”
The momentum from the eruption that occurred in Paycom Center after heave carried the Thunder for nearly five minutes to start the fourth quarter, as it outscored Los Angeles 11-5 to build an eight-point edge. This one was destined for crunch time though, the league’s youngest versus oldest teams, both on the second night of a back-to-back as the NBA season was just warming up.
The Lakers pulled to within five points at 112-107 on an Anthony Davis tip-in but coming out of a timeout the Thunder was poised and prepared for double-teams on Gilgeous-Alexander. Instead of forcing it, the Thunder’s point guard smartly passed out of a trap and into the hands of Dort, who used a left-handed inside-out dribble – a move he didn’t possess when he arrived in Oklahoma City two years ago – to blow past Carmelo Anthony for a two-handed dunk with 3:05 to go.
“We knew they were going to start doubling Shai at some point and we just had to be ready,” said Dort, who was one of six Thunder players in double figures with 17 points. “I saw the lane open and just had to make a move to finish strong at the rim.”
The Thunder’s lead became even more precarious at 116-115 with just 50.7 seconds remaining. Daigneault called a timeout and drew up a masterpiece of a play. It was a standard “horns” set, with two players at the elbows and two in the corners, with the ball-handler up top. The personnel was all inverted though, leaving the Lakers unsure of the mechanics to come.
Dort brought the ball up, with Gilgeous-Alexander and Favors ready to set picks and Giddey and Bazley waiting on the wings. Dribbling right, Dort flipped the ball to Giddey, who cruised around a screen going to his left, turning the corner with pace to get into the lane. Favors’ defender crashed over to help, leaving the veteran Thunder center open for a drop-off bucket.
“We knew Shai was going to get heavy attention on him especially in crunch time. We got me and Fave in an on-ball (screen) and I just tried to make a play out of that,” said Giddey, who notched his 10th assist on the play to go with 18 points for his first career double-double.
In a do-or-die situation, that type of level-headed execution and the selflessness by Gilgeous-Alexander to serve as a decoy gave the Thunder just enough breathing room to eke out the final 31 seconds and seal its first win of the 2021-22 season. The comeback and resilience it took was delicious for a developing squad, but the competitiveness and poise to finish the job was even sweeter.