With All-Star Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way, young Thunder team confident heading into the playoffs

The Associated Press - April 12, 2024 9:52 am

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) gestures to fans as he celebrates the team's impending win in an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)

By CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault used Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s subtle sacrifices to show why the Thunder aren’t like most playoff contenders that carry the “young team” label.

“Imagine if you’re a player and you can just get 40?” Daigneault said. “He could go out in a game and be like, ‘I’m going to get 40 tonight.’”

Indeed, the All-Star guard — who averages 30.4 points per game — could easily chase stats and individual honors.

Instead, Gilgeous-Alexander has taken fewer shots this season and gets to the free-throw line less frequently, so his scoring has taken a slight dip. But as the 25-year-old Canadian stepped back, his teammates have flourished, and that has helped speed up the team’s rebuild.

A year after winning 40 games and reaching the Play-In Tournament and two years after winning just 24 times, Oklahoma City has 55 victories and is competiting for the best record in the Western Conference.

Daigneault said Gilgeous-Alexander’s maturity has been an accelerator for the franchise.

“If you look at the best teams, the best players, there’s a level of restraint that they show that allows space for the rest of the team to operate and function with confidence. He’s done a great job of” doing just that, Daigneault said.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been able to step back a bit without OKC taking a step back because Thunder general manager Sam Presti has surrounded him with elite young talent. During the stretch between the start of the 2021-22 season and the early part of this season, Chet Holmgren, Jalen Williams and Josh Giddey have claimed eight of the 12 Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.

So Gilgeous-Alexander, a first-team All-NBA selection last year, doesn’t have to force things. He has reached career highs in field goal percentage (.539) and assists (6.2 per game) this season.

“He’s an MVP candidate,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “There’s nothing else you can say about it. When you’ve got that, it’s your responsibility to build around it. And they’ve done it. They certainly deserve a lot of credit.”

— Holmgren was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft, but a foot injury kept him out last season. He has fit in seamlessly as a rookie this season, averaging 16.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

— Williams -– runner-up for Rookie of the Year last season when Holmgren was out –- averages 19.3 points per game and shoots 53.9% from the field.

— Giddey, a member of the All-Rookie team second team after being the sixth overall pick in 2021, averages 12.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per contest. He was especially good in March, averaging 16.3 points on 57% shooting, 7.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game.

— The fifth starter, Lu Dort, has gone from being undrafted in 2019 to one of the best defensive guards in the league. He also is shooting a career-best 39.5% from 3-point range.

“The organization has done a fantastic job,” Popovich said. “Sam Presti is special, and the work he does is brilliant. And the entire coaching staff is committed, organized, makes people accountable, creative. The players are talented, but that’s not enough. They’re disciplined.”

Sacramento Kings coach Mike Brown, whose team made a significant leap last season, said the Thunder have something going.

“When you’re able to go through the process the right way, you’re going to be able to find guys that like playing, not just together, but playing for each other,” he said. “And you can tell from the outside looking in that this group really plays for each other on both ends of the floor and they believe that they are good and that they belong, which is really big.”

Gilgeous-Alexander also has improved defensively, leading the league with 2.1 steals per game. Though this group hasn’t won a playoff series together, he believes the Thunder won’t be intimidated.

“Each team equally wants it the same,” he said. “The game and and the hustle and the focus is a little bit heightened. But end of the day, it’s still basketball and the same things work.”

Oklahoma City’s rally from 20 points down to beat the Kings on Tuesday illustrated another trait that could serve the Thunder well in the playoffs – resilience.

“We’ve been in this situation a lot,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We know what it takes. I guess that muscle’s kind of trained. You know, nobody wants to go down that big. But it’s a luxury to have guys that that understand how to get back, how to play through adversity. And I think we have a group of guys that does.”

Oklahoma City had the league’s third-youngest roster on opening night with an average age of 24 years and 43 days. But that doesn’t mean the team has to be reckless.

“If we hold ourselves to the standard of a young team, it’s like, at what point do we change that?” Daigneault said. “We’ve just tried to build a really strong foundation that can transcend any team, any age and team, any cycle of team, so that’s what we can now build on.”

 

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