Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seals Game 1 win with ‘MVP moment’

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Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seals Game 1 win with ‘MVP moment’

OKLAHOMA CITY — With a new crop of baby-faced assassins ready to take over the NBA, employees of the West’s top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder prepared for a return of the ear-splitting environment established in the franchise’s first playoff appearance 14 years ago.

Fans lined up outside the arena’s entrance two hours before Game 1 against the New Orleans Pelicans. The team placed white T-shirts on the backs of every seat and, sure enough, virtually every fan of the home team pulled theirs on, turning the blue seats inside Paycom Center into the sea of white center Chet Holmgren said he envisioned on the eve of his playoff debut.

Resident defensive wizard Lu Dort, before applying the clamps to Pelicans star Brandon Ingram, accepted the Northwest Division championship trophy from Oklahoma City mayor David Holt on behalf of the team just before tip-off. The banner hanging from the rafters to commemorate the achievement was unveiled seconds later. Rob Clay, the organization’s longtime, go-to for the national anthem, belted out another mighty rendition. The fans roared for it all.

And of course, the sold-out crowd of 18,203 stood until the Thunder’s first points, erupting when Holmgren splashed in the night’s first 3-ball.

“It was amazing,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They were exactly what I expected. Even when I wasn’t here and I played here (as a visitor), the arena was always electric. It always had so much energy. And they were perfect. They were themselves tonight.”

It felt like old times inside the place, with the Thunder surviving for a 94-92 win over the Pelicans to take a 1-0 lead in this first-round NBA playoff series.

In honor of the old days, here are the nuggets from my notebook from the Thunder’s Game 1 win.

1. For all the talk of the Thunder’s youth and playoff inexperience, they showcased elite stubbornness in two second-half stretches that suggest they’ll be just fine in these playoffs.

2. The first came in the third quarter. OKC came out of the halftime locker room tied at 43 but built a nine-point lead midway through the quarter. Instead of putting away the Pelicans right there, the Thunder watched their lead turn into a one-point deficit four minutes later. But over the final two minutes of the period, OKC closed on a 9-2 spurt. The Thunder snatched back a six-point lead going to the fourth quarter. Kenrich Williams made a cutting layup off an assist from Cason Wallace. Gilgeous-Alexander made a transition layup. Jalen Williams hit a floater off a feed from Isaiah Joe, and Joe hit a transition 3 off a pass from Jalen Williams.

3. In that stretch, the Thunder fit the description coach Mark Daigneault gave when asked what it looks like when OKC is the best version of itself. “We’re competing together,” Daigneault said. “We’re competitive, and we’re doing it as a five-man group on both ends of the floor. And that’s who we’ve been for much of the season. We’re not perpetually perfect with that. But we’ve established a very consistent tenor with that.”

4. The second stubborn stretch came in crunchtime. And it was captained by Gilgeous-Alexander.

5. SGA was sensational through three quarters, snaking his way to his spots as he usually does to carve up the Pelicans on a series of pull-up jumpers and slippery driving layups. He had 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting through three quarters. He sat on four rebounds, four assists and had committed zero turnovers entering the fourth quarter. But for a good chunk of the final period, Gilgeous-Alexander was sloppy.

6. He missed five of his first six shots in the quarter and turned the ball over on three straight possessions. The sequence looked like the moment this team’s playoff inexperience was catching up. SGA’s turnovers were both untimely and uncharacteristic. All three came in 53 seconds inside the final five minutes with the game tied or the margin within one possession. With the Thunder leading by three with 4:13 remaining, Gilgeous-Alexander sailed an errant pass to Holmgren on a slip screen that went out of bounds. Pelicans forward Herb Jones made the Thunder pay at the other end with a game-tying 3. Gilgeous-Alexander then got stripped in the lane from behind by Pelicans guard CJ McCollum. And on the next trip, with the Thunder trailing by two with 3:20 left following an Ingram fast-break bucket, SGA threw another pass out of bounds, this one intended for Dort on a drive-and-kick.

7. The normally stoic SGA showed rare frustration with himself.

8. “When I make a mistake or miss a shot, I’m upset probably for about 10 or 15 seconds and then it’s the next possession,” Gilgeous-Alexander explained. “If you want to win, you have to do so. You have to move on. And there’s so many possessions late in the game when it slows down that if you let the previous possession distract you you’ll let the game slip. And I just tried not to do so.”

9. That’s when SGA turned into the MVP finalist he is. He shook off every miscue and missed shot and showed why he’s a superstar. Against one of the game’s best defenders in Jones, Gilgeous-Alexander dribbled into a clean midrange jumper to tie the game at 90 with 1:36 remaining. One minute later, he got his revenge on McCollum. SGA sized him up from the top of the arc before going to work, using one dribble to squeeze between McCollum and Jones in help position to get to the free-throw line area. There, he flipped up a shot while fading backward and being fouled. The bucket dropped. The crowd went crazy. The ensuing free throw was good, giving the Thunder a 93-90 lead they never relinquished in the final 32 seconds.

10. “MVP moment, for sure,” Jalen Williams said.

11. But the Thunder’s defense won the night. Without injured star Zion Williamson playing for New Orleans, the Thunder’s defense on Ingram will go a long way in determining how long this series lasts. If it continues close to anything we saw in Game 1, the Thunder could take care of the Pelicans real quick.

12. Led by Dort, OKC hounded and harassed Ingram all night. He finished with a playoff career-low 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Dort didn’t just slow him down. He effectively shut Ingram down. Only one of Ingram’s field goals came with Dort as his primary defender — and it came in transition, on Ingram’s go-ahead layup with 3:34 remaining.

13. Dort’s defense was spectacular. He took Ingram out of the game by denying, crowding, bumping, banging, swiping, fighting over screens, recovering, closing and contesting. And whenever Ingram did create enough separation to squeeze off a shot, he left them short as if he had no more juice in his legs after working so hard just to get a look. Ingram said he’ll be ready for more of that style in Game 2. But he showed nothing Sunday night that should spook Thunder fans.

14. “He was on it. He was really on it, especially early,” Daigneault said. “I thought (on) catches, he got him off his spots. Really disruptive. We shifted him to McCollum at different times as well.”

15. “He’s a first-team defender, man,” Jalen Williams said of Dort. “I think anytime you see somebody playing that hard it makes you play just as hard to try and match that. You don’t want to go out there and he’s playing so hard and then you give your guy an easy one. I think it’s just the level of pride he plays with on the defensive end. I think it just kind of gives us all that jolt to want to play harder and cover up for him when he does get beat or makes a mistake, which is a rare thing. So anytime we can have his back, that’s something that we want to do.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is surrounded by his teammates while getting interviewed after the Thunder’s Game 1 win over the Pelicans on Sunday night in Oklahoma City. (Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)

16. But Dort had ample assistance. Jalen Williams, Kenrich Williams and Aaron Wiggins all took turns against Ingram. Late in the first quarter, when the Thunder switched everything, Kenrich Williams supplied a sensational defensive sequence against Ingram in isolation. Jalen Williams’ length and endless effort pestered Ingram as well. “It was a group effort tonight,” Daigneault said.

17. Cason Wallace’s final defensive possession was a difference-maker. “The questions we’d be getting tonight would be a lot different if he didn’t get that stop,” Holmgren said.

18. Daigneault inserted Wallace for the final 32 seconds. McCollum hit a baseline jumper over the rookie guard to pull the Pelicans within one. But after Holmgren split a pair of free throws, Wallace drew the biggest assignment on the game’s biggest possession. The Thunder led by two with 14 seconds left. McCollum had the ball in his hands. Wallace was the only one in front of him. He stuck to McCollum for as long as he could before falling for a shot fake and allowing McCollum to go under for a clean look from 3 at the buzzer. The shot hit back rim, allowing the Thunder to escape.

19. “He was awesome,” Daigneault said. “He stood in there. Two-point game. We didn’t want to go double in that situation and give up a 3. He almost got the ball. But a lot of pressure. He took them out of what they were doing. They got a clean look because of the second jump; a good lesson there.”

20. Daigneault said Wallace’s experience defending star scorers throughout the season was pivotal in preparing him for such a moment. “It means everything,” Daigneault said. “That’s what you’ve got to do in the season You’ve got to expose yourself to all the experiences, learn from them. No one’s more humble in terms of coming to work every day than he is so his growth curve’s been steep as a result of that. We trust him in any situation. He was playing down the stretch of a close playoff game tonight and he did a great job.”

21. Daigneault when asked how he communicated such a pivotal defensive strategy ahead by two with 14 seconds left? “Get the defenders on the court and let them do their thing,” he said.

22. Holmgren’s playoff debut wasn’t bad either: 15 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, five blocks. He was asked his thoughts as he walked off the floor of his first playoff game. His response was kind of scary. The rookie confirmed this is only the beginning for him. “Obviously feeling like I could be better in different situations out there on both ends of the floor,” Holmgren said. “But it’s always great to start off with a win. If I’m starting off at 15, 11, five blocks, then I can only go up from there.”

23. Holmgren’s final block on Larry Nance Jr. with 55 seconds remaining and the game tied at 90 was as much of a game-saving play as anything SGA or Dort or either Williams or Wallace did.

24. “I was just trying to make a play,” Holmgren said. “I didn’t want to leave things into the hands of the other team. So I was trying to go up and make a play, whether I was going to end up being late and have it be a goaltend or not. I tried to go make a play. I think it was clean. I’m not sure. And it’s only a goaltend if they call it.”

25. SGA on Holmgren and Wallace’s defensive stops in the final minute: “I don’t consider them rookies anymore. They’ve played so many minutes, so many big moments. Once you get past 82 games, I don’t think you’re a rookie anymore. They proved that tonight.”

26. Daigneault on Holmgren’s debut: “He was great. I thought he was competitive. I think in the playoffs there’s a level of discomfort that you have to overcome. He got good looks early that he didn’t make. I think he was 1 of 7 to start the game. These games are going to force you to clear hurdles and force you to overcome the adversities of the game and the discomfort of a physical, high-level game. And we confronted plenty of that tonight. I thought we overcame a lot of it. Him included. He kept himself in the game.”

27. With all the talk of the players’ inexperience, I asked Daigneault before the game what’s the biggest game he’s coached. “This one,” he said. How about before Sunday? “The last one,” Daigneault quipped.

28. The NBA’s also got some explaining to do to Daigneault and the Thunder. Daigneault took a coach’s challenge with 2:40 that sent confusion through press row in real time. A loose ball went out of bounds and with the officials unsure who earned possession, a jump ball was the call. Daigneault challenged, which risked giving the ball to the Pelicans instead if replay review ruled the Thunder was the last to touch it. That’s exactly what happened. But initially, it appeared Daigneault had found a loophole in the system. He lost the challenge, but because the Pelicans were awarded possession, the official originally said the Thunder would retain its timeout and its coach’s challenge. But that was overturned, and the Thunder lost both. Allow Daigneault to explain.

29. “I just looked it up because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t crazy,” he said. “We had a game in Utah on Jan. 18. Same situation. Twelve seconds left in the game. Out-of-bounds call. They don’t have it right on the floor. It’s a jump ball. I challenge the play. It was Utah ball. James Williams was the crew chief that night. He comes to the thing (scorer’s table) and says ‘Challenge is successful. Utah ball. Oklahoma City retains its timeout. Retains their challenge.’ I mean, that was him addressing the camera. So I learned something during that game.“Kevin Scott tonight came over, one of the refs, and said ‘I keep my challenge.’ And then they told me that they checked with whoever and that I don’t get to keep my challenge. I lose my timeout. So I mean, I don’t think I’m wrong because it happened during the year. But if it was wrong in Utah, I didn’t get a phone call. Because I’ve gone the whole season understanding the rule like that. So I was very confused just because it was a huge inconsistency. If it was wrong in Utah, I wished they would have called me. If it was wrong tonight, it’s a playoff game. So I was a little disappointed in that one.”

30. Asked if he’ll reach out to the league office for further discussion about the matter, Daigneault said “I’m just going to figure out what the rule is. Because obviously there’s a disconnect between what the rule was in January and what the rule was tonight.”

31. Jalen Williams and Pelicans center Jonas Valančiūnas had a hilarious moment early in the third quarter. The two got their hands locked on the ball and wouldn’t let go. A jump ball was called, but emotions ran high. Valančiūnas unleashed a primal scream and raised Williams off the floor as the two still shared a grip on the basketball. Williams finally let go once Valančiūnas let him down, and after walking away, Williams got the crowd going.

32. “He yelled in my face and he picked me up off the floor,” Williams said. “So I just barked, I don’t know. It was good energy the whole time. I thought that was pretty cool. I got to bark at the fans. They barked back. It was just competitive juices going. Both fighting for the ball. It’s playoff basketball. It wasn’t anything mean. It was just we were both going at it. But it’s kind of hard to recover. He picked me up off my feet, so I didn’t have a great response other than to bark.”

33. Williams on his intimate intensity with Thunder fans while celebrating: “Honestly, it’s a blur when I’m amped up. I just be kind of out there. Sometimes I’ll look at the videos and be, like, ‘I don’t even remember what was going on.’ It’s just fun to interact with the fans. A lot of people will drive an hour to come and watch us play. You never know the circumstances of people coming through to the games. It could be their first. It could be their last. So I try and just give good energy. And I end up doing whatever in the stands. Half the time I don’t remember it until I see a video. So whoever’s right there, you’re probably going to get yelled at or high-fived or something. I don’t know.”

34. Daigneault had an interesting response on not shortening his rotation in Game 1. He played 11, with Jaylin Williams logging a team-low seven minutes. “I trust our players and wanted to give everybody an opportunity tonight especially,” Daigneault said. “You can adjust through the course of the series as things unfold. But we don’t want to shorten our bench in a self-inflicted way. We’ll evaluate the game. We’ll evaluate what we think is best. It’s not a precursor to what we’ll do moving forward. We’ll continue to evolve as the series evolves. But with the amount of success we had doing that through the course of the season, that’s just what I felt comfortable doing tonight.”

35. Finally, bring back Thunder Alley! It’s time. The Milwaukee Bucks have the Deer District. The Toronto Raptors have Jurassic Park. The Golden State Warriors have Thrive City. Don’t let a one-off incident from more than a decade ago be the reason to deprive fans of soaking in a Thunder postseason in all its glory. If the goal of the organization truly is to revive Loud City, do the right thing and resurrect the wildly popular outdoor watch parties. Remind the rest of the league why Thunder fans have a legitimate claim as the best in the NBA. It’s time to bring back Thunder Alley.

(Top photo of Larry Nance Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)