Shai Gilgeous-Alexander perched over the Oklahoma City Thunder’s center-court logo as he discontentedly shook his head back-and-forth while draping his hands over his knees.
With 2.7 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City’s point guard appeared as if he was about to glide to the rim for a contested layup. Instead, Gilgeous-Alexander stunned his defender with a dribble move and launched his patented step-back three-pointer from the right elbow for a game-tying jumper.
Nervously awaiting the result of his shot, Gilgeous-Alexander jumped up-and-down before watching the ball ricochet off the back of the rim and into the hands of the Chicago Bulls. Bulls’ forward Javonte Green, who grabbed the game-clinching rebound, went on to nail two free-throws to seal Chicago’s 111-110 win over the Thunder on Monday night.
For Gilgeous-Alexander, he’s been the piloting force in Oklahoma City’s closeout possessions this season. The point-guard hit an identical shot from the elbow for a 114-113 game-winner during the Dec. 19 game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Gilgeous-Alexander did not garner the same luck tonight, however.
“I think there we had a play for that situation where we (wanted to) open the floor up, it assures that you get (Gilgeous-Alexander) the ball,” head coach Mark Daigneault said. “ That’s something that was a priority for me on that play. Nine seconds is enough time to go get a quick shot to fall because we had one timeout. If you end up taking the three, you’ve got to have the right guy shooting it in that situation. The other thing that I think gets introduced is a lot of teams in that situation will follow up with a three in that situation.”
Prior to entering the fourth quarter, Gilgeous-Alexander and his team found themselves entrenched in a 27-point hole with 6:56 remaining in the third quarter. The Toronto, Ontario native scored 31 points on a 11-for-17 total, alongside 10 assists, three steals and a 11-of-14 free throw attempts in the game. He breathed life into Oklahoma City’s offense by scoring a pull-up three in transition with 3:26 left in the third quarter.
The three pointer spurred a 26-17 run in the fourth quarter, pushing Oklahoma City within just one point during the final seconds. Notably, it also etched another accolade in the history books for the 23-year old point guard. Gilgeous-Alexander became the third player from the 2018 NBA Draft class to eclipse a career-mark of 4,000 points.
“I think he’s been on a nice little run here for a while,” Daigneault said. “That was a really efficient 31 points. He got to the line a ton. He made the right passes and got his teammate shots. He played with pace up the floor and pace with the inside action, which makes it harder for the defense to help on him. When he plays like that the defense has to be really sharp in order to load up the way they want to defend… He’s definitely learning that and doing a really good job while doing it.”
Oklahoma City’s defense struggled in the first half, allowing a combined 58 points in the first half. The Bulls led by 10 points, and the Thunder was not able to stop them beyond-the-arc. This season Chicago has the best three-point percentage in the entire NBA, and that offensive dominance – even without star guard Demar Derozan (rest), Lonzo Ball (pending knee surgery) and Alex Caruso (wrist) – continued as it shot just above 38 percent from three.
It wasn’t until Oklahoma City guard Lu Dort and forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl helped the Thunder lock down the perimeter after the third quarter. Robinson-Earl, tallying 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting, attributed two key steals during the game. For Dort, his defense on star Chicago guard Zach Lavine was pivotal in the comeback. After recovering a tipped pass from Gilgeous-Alexander, he assisted a two-handed fastbreak jam that brought the score down to six points with 3:08 left in the game, as well.
“I give our guys a lot of credit,” Daigneault said. “The ball pressure really amped up, and they brought a lot of energy in the back court. To go up there and push the ball like that, it was huge for us because it took them out of their offense and didn’t allow them to use their size at the five. If they just pumped the ball to Vucevic, we would have had to double and would have been in rotation the rest of the game, but I thought – because of the ball pressure by all those guys – we took them out of the opportunity to do that.”
Despite losing the game in the final moments, the Thunder will be able to have three days of rest before their next home game against the Indiana Pacers at 7 p.m. CT on Friday, Jan. 28 in Oklahoma City. For Daigneault, he’s just proud of his team’s continued effort in the face of a deficit.
“I think it builds chemistry. It builds trust, and I think that’s developing inside of our team. I’m always impressed by how encouraging the players are with one another in those situations. I think it’s just a testament to that and then you know, everybody had one ball go in tonight.”