Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Oklahoma City Thunder have arrived
One of the NBA’s youngest teams, headlined by the 24-year-old All-Star, can make the playoffs with a win in Minnesota
NEW ORLEANS – An understandably ecstatic Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sported Prada shades, a denim outfit, a tie and boots as he talked that talk for good reason after his Oklahoma City Thunder made play-in tournament history on Wednesday night.
“One more and four more! One more and four more! One more and 16 more! Hold on, let me check myself in the mirror,” boomed Gilgeous-Alexander in the visitors’ locker room after the 10th-seeded Thunder’s 123-118 victory over the ninth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans late Wednesday night in Western Conference play-in action.
The NBA All-Star was referring to needing one more win to officially make the 2023 playoffs, four more wins after that to win a playoff series and 16 playoff wins total to earn the franchise’s first championship. It’s ambitious for the NBA’s youngest team, which became the first Western Conference 10-seed to win a play-in game. But with Gilgeous-Alexander leading the way, the Thunder could make the playoffs with a road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday. The winner advances to a first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets.
The Thunder are supposed to be a year or two away from making some noise, and played without injured rookie forward Chet Holmgren, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft. But with the 24-year-old Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey (20), Luguentz Dort (23) and Jalen Williams (21), age has been nothing but a number for Oklahoma City. The up-and-coming Thunder also packed their bags heavy for the do-or-die game in New Orleans intending to end up in Denver.
“We knew about our age going into this season and the last couple of seasons,” Gilgeous-Alexander told Andscape. “We don’t worry about external. We just worry about internal. We go into every summer trying to get better individually and as a team. We did a pretty good job of that last summer and that is why we are where we are.
“We kind of showed the world that we are pretty good basketball players and we are a team that is together. We have been battle-tested. We know what it takes to win games.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 32 points in the win against the Pelicans, was fourth in the NBA in scoring during the regular season, averaging 31.4 points. The Pelicans limited the Canadian to just seven points at halftime, but in the second half he scored 25 points, including six in the final 29 seconds. Gilgeous-Alexander also defended well, helping the Thunder force the Pelicans into 4-of-19 from the field and 1-of-9 on 3-point attempts as the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The odds are against the Thunder on Friday going on the road against a Timberwolves squad they went 1-3 against this season. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 33.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds in three games against the Timberwolves this season. The expectation is that that he will be guarded by fellow All-Star guard Anthony Edwards.
“It’s going to be superfun. Another do-or-die game. We’ll want to win. They’ll want to win. It’s about making plays and being true to your habits,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They’re talented just like [the Pelicans]. This time of the year you play really good basketball teams no matter who. You have to impose your will from the [start], have them play on your terms, and then try to play on your terms offensively.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said his life hasn’t changed much since being named an NBA All-Star for the first time this season other than “a little more attention.” On Wednesday, the NBA released a list of its top-selling jerseys based on the second half of this season from sales at the NBA Store in New York City. Gilgeous-Alexander did not make the list, which is led by the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James. Perhaps being in small-market Oklahoma City without many nationally televised games hurts his potential popularity as well.
But if Gilgeous-Alexander can lead the Thunder into the postseason with basketball fans all around the world watching, perhaps one of the NBA’s hidden treasures will become a household name.
“The more you win games, the more you’re on TV, the more the world sees,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I didn’t focus on the lack of attention. I just focused on myself and got better and being ready once it all came.”