Chet Holmgren and Lu Dort anchor elite Thunder defense heading into second round of NBA playoffs

The Associated Press - May 4, 2024 8:21 pm

By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The young Oklahoma City Thunder finally are drawing national attention with a high-scoring offense led by MVP finalist Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

A closer look shows the defense is just as responsible for the Thunder claiming the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and sweeping the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. Though best known for an up-tempo style that helped them rank third in the league in scoring during the regular season, Chet Holmgren, Gilgeous-Alexander, and Lu Dort led an Oklahoma City team that finished fourth in the league in defensive rating and third in opponent field goal percentage.

The Thunder defense was even better in the first round, holding the Pelicans to 92 points or fewer in all four games. The Thunder will need more of the same if they are to beat the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals starting next Tuesday in Oklahoma City.

“I think when you constantly kind of throw effort into playing defense as hard as we did all year, there’s no switch that has to be turned on in the playoffs,” said Jalen Williams, another of the team’s versatile defenders.

Holmgren missed all of last season with a foot injury. His availability this season has boosted the Thunder from a good defensive team last season to an elite one this season. The 7-foot-1 Rookie of the Year finalist ranked fifth in the league with 2.3 blocks per game.

Holmgren’s ability to block and alter shots and cover for his teammates has filled in the missing piece from last season’s unit. He’s a tireless worker and a fast learner with good instincts, can defend any position, and is tougher than one might expect with a slender 208-pound frame.

“He’s also bought into what we’re trying to do defensively and he’s really smart — knows when to rotate and go out there and play guards,” Williams said. ‘We throw him around a lot of different positions defensively, too, so he’s done a good job of adjusting to that.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged more than 30 points per game the past two years while quietly becoming a high-level defensive player. He ranked second in the league with 2.0 steals per game this season.

“He sees the game on both sides of the court,” guard Aaron Wiggins said. “You know him being the guy he is as an offensive player — obviously holds his own weight, but he’s on the defensive end playing as hard as he is and everything. It makes everybody else just kind of understand that we all can push ourselves to be the best versions of ourselves on both ends because he’s not taking a play off.”

Dort embraces the role of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player. Gilgeous-Alexander said he’s glad he doesn’t have to go against the 6-4, 220-pound stopper.

“He anchors us,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “His physicality, his effort. It’s hard. Like when you see Lu doing all that defensively, you can’t just give up defensively and not put in the same effort. You feel like you’re letting him down.”

Gilgeous-Alexander said he doesn’t understand why Dort hasn’t made an All-Defense team, but in a way, Dort’s role as an unsung hero is fitting — he was undrafted in 2019 and started his career on a two-way contract.

Dort has continued to refine his skills with little fanfare. New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram averaged just 14.3 points per game on 34.5% shooting in the first round, with Dort as his primary defender. That’s compared to regular-season averages of 20.8 points and 49.2% shooting.

“I always talk about the invisible skills, invisible work,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “Lu does a lot of invisible things. You can’t count them all and you can’t put a stat on all of them, but like, try playing against him. You can feel it and we can feel it when he’s on our side.”


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