Nuggets put the kibosh on SGA in rough Thunder home opener

Nuggets put the kibosh on SGA in rough Thunder home opener

That’s the trademark for SGA. Remarkable consistency. High highs. Almost no low lows. But Sunday was low. Gilgeous-Alexander made just two of 16 shots. SGA went scoreless the first 10:45. He didn’t make a basket until 8:31 was left in the third quarter.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 29, 2023, 7:09pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 29, 2023, 7:09pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s shots kept hitting the rim and bouncing off. At least that’s what Gilgeous-Alexander heard. He didn’t have the best view, often sprawled on the hardwood, after getting knocked down by one of those men from the mountains.

No officiating criticism here. Just the law of the jungle. Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nikola Jokic. They are NBA champions, and they didn’t get there by playing soft.

So SGA kept hearing the clang of the basketball, and soon enough, the clang became a clunk. The Denver Nuggets routed the Thunder 128-95 Sunday in OKC’s home opener.

Clunker of a game for the Thunder, of which there have been many over the years. Clunker of a game for Gilgeous-Alexander, of which there have been few.

That’s the trademark for SGA. Remarkable consistency. High highs. Almost no low lows.

But Sunday was low. Gilgeous-Alexander made just two of 16 shots. SGA went scoreless the first 10:45. He didn’t make a basket until 8:31 was left in the third quarter. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with seven points, virtually all of them meaningless.

And the game reminded us of his greatness. These kinds of games happen to even the best player. They just rarely happen to SGA.

That’s how Gilgeous-Alexander made first-team all-NBA a year ago, when he averaged 31.4 points a game and shot 51 percent from the field. 

SGA had only nine games last season when he shot under 40 percent. Only twice did he shoot under 30 percent, a 4-of-14 game at Memphis and a 4-of-15 game vs. Philadelphia.

That’s been Gilgeous-Alexander’s mode of operandi since the 2019 trade that made him a Thunder. Scant few clunkers.

And SGA seemed his same all-star self as the Thunder opened this season with a two-game road sweep of the Bulls and Cavaliers – 12 of 18 shooting in Chicago, 15 of 26 in Cleveland.

Then the Nuggets showed up.

“I can’t remember the last time he had a game like that,” said teammate Santa Clara Williams. “Not really too worried about it. He does a lot of other stuff on the floor. There’s going to be games like that where he doesn’t shoot too well. I’m not too concerned with it.”

Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t seem to be too concerned, either. First, he did do other things, including seven assists against the Nuggets. SGA is averaging 7.0 assists through three games, well above his career 4.6 average.

And second, Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t waver much in his demeanor.

“Like tomorrow, I have to wake up, same as if I had a 20-for-21 type of night,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Basketball , I love it, it’s a big part of my life, but it doesn’t define who I am as a human being.

“So I don’t put too much pressure on myself. It’s something I love to do. Some nights I can be great, some nights I can be bad. Again, tomorrow, I have to wake up and do the same thing all over again.”

Good perspective. But Gilgeous-Alexander has little practice at dealing with clunkers, especially a Westbrookian 2-of-16 in a high-profile game like the home opener. SGA has been so good and so consistent, we forget that he’s clunker capable.

“They did a good job on him,” Mark Daigneault said. “Some of it is just the bounce of the ball. The thing I respect about him is his ability to stay even through the ups and downs of the season.

“This is obviously a down for his individual play. But we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, obviously in the past. He’s the same guy every day. He’ll come back tomorrow and be the same guy again. There won’t be many nights like this with him.”

It would help if SGA could get a whistle. He led the NBA in foul shots made last season. But he’s attempted just 11 through three games (making 10), including 3-of-4 vs. Denver. If NBA officials have found a reason to limit Gilgeous-Alexander’s trips to the foul line, the Thunder scoring is going to take a dip.

“Honestly, I have no clue,” SGA said of the foul-line decline. “Guess just the way the game goes. Sometimes you get calls and sometimes you don’t. It is what it is. I won’t change the way I play. I’ll try to do the same thing tomorrow.  If I get ‘em I’ll get ‘em, if I dont I won’t.”

Oh well. Gilgeous-Alexander was due. Even the most efficient scorers have clunkers. Kevin Durant had 12 sub-.300 shooting games in eight Thunder seasons. Russell Westbrook had, well, that’s not fair. Westbrook was a different kind of player. Let’s just say that in Westbrook’s 11 Thunder seasons, his shooting games under .300 was in triple digits.

So chalk up this clunker of a home opener to the basketball odds and gods catching up to Gilgeous-Alexander, and to the nastiness of a defending NBA champion that has all the trappings of being the league’s best team again.

And pray that those whistles start blowing again soon.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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