The young OKC Thunder never had the pressure of expectations from many. They are young, feisty, and promising. In their first playoff game together, the young Thunder doesn’t look out of place. They certainly looked like they belonged.
Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led that charge in OKC’s scintillating 123-118 victory to eliminate the New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in tournament.
OKC Thunder see their young core excel on the biggest stage against the New Orleans Pelicans
Gilgeous-Alexander had 32 points, while Giddey tied his career-high 31 points in one of the most important games of his young career.
Giddey tallied a 62 percent true shooting percentage in the matchup after working as the offensive valve for the Thunder in lieu of New Orleans’ defense collapsing on SGA.
Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, recorded a 63 percent true shooting rate while proving his playoff capabilities despite defenses solely focused on him.
The two had a huge third-quarter together with SGA dropping 17 while Giddey scored 12 to compose the 29 of the team’s 39 third-quarter tally.
Uncharacteristic of the second-youngest NBA team in history, the OKC Thunder never looked disconcerted. The Thunder tied with or trailed behind the Pelicans for about 165 seconds in the final 193 ticks of the game. Amidst those never-wracking seconds, the young OKC squad kept their composure up before snagging the lead at the 28.3 mark of the fourth frame through a Gilgeous-Alexander fadeaway stab.
This was what Giddey said about pressure in the post-game presser: “Nothing ever phased us. It’s such a young group, but it’s such a composed team and that’s how you have to be down the stretch of tight games like that.”
SGA looked more mature than ever, never overhandling the ball when trapped from NOLA’s blitz coverages as he showcased his patience as the ball-handler to create offense for the rest of the team. This deep understanding of how their offense works — which is founded on unselfishness, dribble-drives, and timely cuts — allowed him to find the capable triggers to rely on to produce much-needed baskets.
One can conclude that OKC Thunder high-quality generation of shots stemmed from SGA’s offensive gravity in the game as he rarely forced anything in that end of the court and let his time to take over the game come to him.
Giddey, meanwhile, played the role of a stabilizer, often calming the offense with his innate feel of the game, while keeping defenses in check with his unorthodox style of play.
The 20-year-old proved that he is a savant in running the Thunder’s offense after administering 10 assists versus the Pelicans. Giddey was particularly solid as the short roll trigger when Shai was doubled on screening actions, which led to open baseline cuts and dunks, especially in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.
On possessions the Thunder was in dire need of buckets, SGA took over with his isolation game, negating the aggressive resistance from the Pelicans that saw them throw multiple defenders on Gilgeous-Alexander.
On possessions he did not play isolation, the Thunder’s guard-to-guard screening actions forced some switches and diverted the defense to allow cracks on SGA’s lane to basket. If one watched Shai play this season, a simple defensive crevice is all he needs to score.
Their defense, too, was on a level befitting of a playoff game. Lu Dort — who finished with 27 points — blew up a number of Pelicans’ possessions to put the ball on Brandon Ingram’s hands. Dort burst apart plays through sheer defensive will coupled with his physical intensity, which often rescinded screens.
SGA, as well, showed his defensive tools, playing possibly his best two-way game in his career as he disrupted the Pelicans’ offense with active hands and relentless timing. Him and Dort proved to be a difference-maker, not just on one side of the court.
With the win, the young Thunder not just earned themselves a shot for a playoff series, but also proved their mettle on one of the biggest stages of basketball. Regardless of the result of the remainder of the play-in tournament, one thing was proven true for the Thunder; they have arrived.