Thunder takeaways: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game winner does in Denver

Thunder takeaways: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game winner does in Denver

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shook off a slow start to have an MVP moment in a win at Denver, sinking the go-ahead shot with 0.9 seconds to play.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 17, 2023, 8:05am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 17, 2023, 8:05am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Tre Mann knew before the rest of us. 

Watch the replay of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game-winning jumper Saturday night in Denver, and keep your eyes on Mann, Gilgeous-Alexander’s teammate near the left end of the OKC bench. 

You’ll see Mann watching like everyone else as Gilgeous-Alexander brings the ball upcourt at Ball Arena, feints a drive at the Nuggets’ Peyton Watson, gears down, then speeds back up, getting below the free throw line before he spins into a jump shot and sinks it with 0.9 seconds on the clock for a one-point lead. 

It set off a mad celebration on the Thunder bench, but Mann got a head start. 

You can see when the ball hits its apex that he knows it’s going in. 

It’s probably the product of having seen that shot so many times. 

By any measure, Saturday’s was special. It gave OKC a 118-117 win and handed Denver just its second home loss this season. It provided Gilgeous-Alexander with the kind of moment that matters in the MVP discussion. And it capped an improbable comeback in a game the Nuggets mostly controlled. 

But it was familiar, too. And not just to Mann. 

“As far as the move,” Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters afterward, “I just tried to get to something that I’ve shot many times — something I was comfortable shooting — and just trust my work.” 

That work “speaks for itself,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, and it paid off against the Nuggets, helping Gilgeous-Alexander find his way back from a sluggish start. 

He was 5 for 15 from the floor for 14 points through three quarters, then made 4 of 5 shots and all three of his free throws to score 11 in the fourth. 

He saved the biggest points for last, on a shot that followed a significant stop. The Thunder forced Denver to go deep into the shot clock on a possession that resulted in a contested 3-point shot from Nikola Jokic. 

It missed, and Isaiah Joe tipped the rebound to Gilegous-Alexander, who took a quick look at Daigneault to make sure the coach didn’t want a timeout. He didn’t, so the plan was to “just let 2 do his own thing,” forward Jalen Williams said. 

He did a good thing. 

“He had a really, really good pace there,” Daigneault said. “He wasn’t sped up, he got to his spot, got a great shot off, obviously, and and drilled it.”

More takeaways from the Thunder’s best win of the season:

Chet Holmgren: Game-changer

The Gilgeous-Alexander shot gave the Thunder its first lead since the 5:59 mark of the first quarter, a span of almost 40 game minutes. The Nuggets led by as many as 11 points. 

And while Gilgeous-Alexander’s offense got OKC back in the game, Chet Holmgren’s play at both ends — particularly on defense — was critical to cutting the lead. 

Holmgren finished with 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocked shots, the most blocks by an NBA player this season. 

The Nuggets shot 6 of 18 in the paint in the third quarter, when Holmgren had five blocks, and made 50% there (26 of 52) for the game. The Thunder, for comparison, hit 32 of 49 shots (65.3%) in the paint. 

“I didn’t know he had nine blocks,” Jalen Williams said. “I think I just get used to him blocking shots, so (I’m) kind of numb to that, but that’s dope.”

After Jokic dominated the matchup in the first meeting — a 128-95 Denver drubbing of the Thunder on Oct. 29 in OKC — Daigneault oped for some larger lineups Saturday. 

In some stretches, he played Holmgren with backup center Jaylin Williams — who was injured and sat out the first Denver game — to throw different defensive looks at Jokic. 

It didn’t stop Jokic from getting his numbers — 24 points, six rebounds, 12 assists — but having another big body on the floor “freed (Holmgren) up for some shot blocking and some defensive rebounding,” Daigneault said. 

Holmgren was “all over the rim tonight” and “all over the defensive glass,” Daigneault said, calling the rookie’s impact on the game “huge.”

It was hugely different from the first time the two teams met, when Holmgren had 19 points but didn’t block a shot and seemed never to so much as bother Jokic, who had 28 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. 

Nuggets coach Michael Malone credited Holmgren for tipping the inbound pass on Denver’s final play with 0.9 seconds remaining. The Nuggets didn’t get off a shot. 

“I don’t know what the difference is for Chet between game one and game two, but you have to give him credit tonight,” Malone said. “Seventeen points, 11 rebounds, and nine blocks. That’s a hell of a line.”

Denver gets dusted

In addition to Gilgeous-Alexander’s 25 points, Jalen Williams scored 24 on Saturday, and their attacking offense was a key difference between the road win and that October home loss to the Nuggets. 

“They just got good players,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “They put their head down and get to the rim, strong players. That is what their coach tells them to do and they are good at it.”

In that earlier meeting, Jalen Williams had 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting, but Gilgeous-Alexander had his worst game of the season: seven points on 2-for-16 shooting. The two shot a combined five free throws in the October game. Gilgeous-Alexander went 7 for 8 on Saturday. 

What changed? Denver had a harder time containing the Thunder duo off the dribble, particularly in the second half, when Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams combined to score 34 points on 14-of-24 shooting. 

“I think the biggest, most alarming stat tonight was just our inability to guard one-on-one,” Malone said. “We (gave up) 24 blow-bys for 37 points. So, it’s just the point of attack, one-on-one. Jalen Williams and Shai, they dominated us in that area.”

A significant split

Technically, the Thunder wasn’t expected to win on the two-game road trip it closed out by beating Denver. 

Oddsmakers had the Nuggets as a 5.5-point favorite Saturday night, and the Kings — who beat OKC 128-123 on Thursday in Sacramento — were favored by 2.5 points. 

So getting any win this week was meaningful. 

Getting one in Denver could give the Thunder a little extra boost. 

The Nuggets entered the game 10-1 at home, tied for the NBA’s third-best homecourt winning percentage. Going into Saturday, Denver had outscored opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions at home, sixth-best in the league. 

“We can play with anybody,” Jalen Williams said. “Obviously respect to them in regards to that. They did a lot to win the game as well. But we can compete with anybody. I think it kind of solidifies thoughts that we had. I don’t think we’ve ever not thought that way but this just gives us more and more confidence going into the rest of the season.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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