With win over Celtics, Thunder makes you wonder: Why not now?

With win over Celtics, Thunder makes you wonder: Why not now?

Conventional wisdom says the Thunder is too young to make a deep playoff run this season. But Tuesday’s win against the Celtics was the latest reason to wonder, why not now?

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 3, 2024, 6:16am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 3, 2024, 6:16am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — This Thunder team can take on the best. 

It proved that again Tuesday when it beat the Boston Celtics — the team with the NBA’s best record — in a 127-123 thriller at Paycom Center. 

Oklahoma City can take a contender’s best shot. It showed as much by withstanding a furious Celtics comeback in the fourth quarter. 

The Thunder (23-9) has a star in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who can take over games, which he did for the better part of three quarters against Boston, finishing with 36 points, six rebounds and seven assists. 

About the only thing OKC can’t take is bait. 

So as the Thunder was peppered with questions about what their latest massive win means, about what the rest of the season might hold for a team that looks increasingly like a playoff contender — not in some far-flung future but right now — it turned them away the way it did that Boston rally. 

“We have over 50 games of the regular season left to play,” OKC center Chet Holmgren said after Tuesday’s game. “So us worrying about playing in the NBA Finals when it’s January 2, we’re gonna miss out on so many opportunities that are right here in front of us to get better. So we’re focused on where we are right now. We just played Boston. We got Atlanta tomorrow. So we’re focused on Atlanta.”

Only a rookie, and already ready with a pitch-perfect Thunder answer. 

Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams offered variations on similar themes, on growth and development and staying in the moment. There’s a long road ahead, they figure. 

They’re not wrong. 

And though it doesn’t make for scintillating soundbites, the product on the court is becoming a must-see. 

And while the Thunder isn’t getting ahead of itself, it’s hard not to think about the future when the present is this enticing. 

Against Boston on Tuesday, Gilgeous-Alexander carved up a pair of high-level NBA defenders in Derrick White and Jrue Holiday. Through three quarters, he’d 33 points on 14-of-19 shooting. 

It was the sort of star turn he’s made standard. 

But the reason the Thunder’s future feels so enticing is what happened when the scoring stopped. 

When the Celtics (26-7) made an adjustment — shifting to 6-foot-8 wing Jayson Tatum as Gilgeous-Alexander’s primary defender in the fourth quarter and limiting the Thunder’s MVP candidate to three points and no field goals — OKC deployed its other weapons. 

Gilgeous-Alexander had two fourth-quarter assists, both on Holmgren 3-pointers. On a night when he was uncharacteristically off at the free-throw line, Gilgeous-Alexander sank two with 2.8 seconds to play to put the Thunder in front by four. 

He picked up his fifth foul with 4:21 to play and didn’t seem to ease up defensively. 

“He’s learned how to impact the game in other ways (beyond scoring),” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “And that’s why he’s a really good player. He’s not a hired-gun scorer.”

That firepower around him — and Gilgeous-Alexander’s adjustment to playing alongside it — is a big reason why OKC looks to be taking a leap. 

Guard Josh Giddey had a season-high 23 points and added eight rebounds and six assists. Jalen Williams scored 14 points, including a critical short jumper with 26.1 seconds to play that put OKC in front 123-119. Holmgren had 14 points and matched his season high with seven assists. 

“I trust them,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They work hard. They trust their work, and we’re seeing the proof.” 

That balanced scoring was just one factor in the Thunder win. In one early fourth-quarter stretch, the Thunder pushed its lead to 18 points, largely on the strength of shot-making and stifling defense by its bench. 

Daigneault particularly praised big man Jaylin Williams, who didn’t see the floor in the first half, then played eight energetic minutes in the second, including as part of a mostly-bench unit that provided that fourth-quarter spark. 

Those contributions are critical for teams that advance in the playoffs, another reason to be intrigued by OKC’s postseason potential. 

That list is getting long. 

The Thunder is 9-1 since Dec. 16. In that span it has two wins against the reigning NBA champion Nuggets, both in Denver. At home over that stretch, OKC has snapped a nine-game winning streak by the L.A. Clippers and won games against the teams with the best record in the West (Minnesota) and the East (Boston). 

For the season, OKC has a net rating of 8.5, meaning it’s outscoring opponents by an average of 8.5 points per 100 possessions, which puts it among the league’s elite. Only Philadelphia (10.4) and Boston (10) have higher net ratings. 

“They’re a tough team to guard,” White said, “and I think the whole league is trying to figure it out.”

All of it begs the why-not-now question. 

Conventional wisdom suggests that this Thunder team — with an average age of 24.1 years old, second-lowest in the league  — is too young to open its contending window now, too untested to withstand the trials of spring and summer in the NBA.

That might prove true. The schedule will get tougher. Some rough patch will arise, as it always does in an NBA season. 

And no team is truly proven until it weathers a postseason together. 

Still, this is a team with an “uncommon ability to block out the noise and to just stay focused on what we need to get better at,” Daigneault said, a team that tends to “respond really well to adversity,” traits that matter in the playoffs, when games slow down and the intensity ramps up. 

It’s also a team that watched Boston whittle an 18-point lead to two in a little less than six minutes Tuesday, proving that “as much poise as we showed in some parts of the game, we also have a long way to go,” Daigneault said. 

But it’s come so far already. 

The theory is that the Thunder needs more seasoning. That it needs a trade to upgrade the roster. 

Time will tell. 

Until then, don’t bother asking. 

Until the playoffs arrive — until OKC officially qualifies — it’s all too far off in the distance. 

There are too many games, the Thunder will tell you, too many days between now and then. Too many chances to get better. 

It’s a formula that’s working. The Thunder will worry later about how it might work when the regular season ends and the high-stakes stuff begins. Not a moment before. 

That’s what they’ll tell you if you ask.

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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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