Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s finish-and-foul flurry leads Thunder past Magic

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s finish-and-foul flurry leads Thunder past Magic

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tied an NBA record for conventional three-point plays and carried the Thunder offense on a night when Orlando’s defense mostly kept it out of rhythm.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 14, 2024, 8:49am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 14, 2024, 8:49am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Earlier in the day, Mark Daigneault had been reviewing film of his first season as the Thunder’s head coach, and though he wasn’t expressly watching for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, his star guard was hard to miss. 

He was slighter then, a third-year guard still physically finding his way in the NBA. He was slimmer. Not yet constructed to absorb punishment. 

Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t look much like the guy who scored 37 points Saturday night against the Magic, tying an NBA record by converting six and-one baskets in the Thunder’s 112-100 win. 

“When you see him every day and every year you don’t really notice it,” Daigneault said. “But when you look back to when he was a rookie and in his second year and third year, he’s definitely invested (in his body) and has done it consistently.”

Gilgeous-Alexander looks stronger than he did and is stronger than he looks. He put that strength — and his skill and savvy and balance — on display in an and-one mixtape Saturday, muscling one Magic defender after another onto his season highlight reel. 

It was a night when the Thunder (27-11) needed him to do the heavy lifting. 

Shorthanded and playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Orlando (21-18) nevertheless played to its strengths. 

The team with the NBA’s fifth-rated defense bogged down the Thunder’s free-flowing offense. The Magic limited the league’s second-best 3-point-shooting team to 8 of 36 from long distance. It held OKC to eight fastbreak points, a little more than half its average. 

But the Magic couldn’t find an SGA solution. 

He got to his spots, made most of his shots (13 of 20 from the floor, 11 of 12 from the free-throw line) and generally confounded Orlando defenders. He scored 30 or more points for the 28th time this season, most in the NBA. 

The NBA has kept play-by-play data since 1997, and Gilgeous-Alexander joined Anthony Davis, Brook Lopez and Amar’e Stoudemire as the only players to have six and-one conversions — a made basket, foul and made free throw — in a game. 

“It’s cool,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’m surprised someone like Giannis (Antetokounmpo) hasn’t had more, but it’s cool.” 

The Bucks’ Antetokounmpo leads the NBA this season in and-one opportunities with 58 entering Saturday’s win over Boston. But as a career 70.6% shooter at the foul line, he’s likely failed to convert his share of free throws after the finish and foul. 

Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 89.1% at the line this season. 

That plays a part in his three-point plays. 

Strength is a factor, too. Gilgeous-Alexander said core strength is “the main thing I work on in the summertime,” and he’s always fine-tuning his shooting touch around the rim. 

“And then I just try to focus,” he said. “After you get hit and you have a shot to make it a three-point play, it’s worth the second of focus to try and get three points. Sometimes you just throw it up there, but I try to focus after I get hit for sure.”

He’s learned more about how to do that in his years in the NBA. His 39 and-one opportunities this season are second to Antetokounmpo. 

Gilgeous-Alexander chalks it up to “feel” having “been in that situation so many times, gotten fouled a lot.” 

Daigneault sees even more than that. 

“Once he senses he’s gonna get contact, he gets the ball gathered and can get shots on the rim, which gives you a chance for an and-one, but it also gives you shooting fouls,” Daigneault said. “I think some of the best guys with the gather rule… have a sense for how to do that. And it’s something that he definitely has learned.”

Told Gilgeous-Alexander had converted six and-ones, teammate Jalen Williams — who scored 16 points Saturday — muttered “Damn,” and said the knack for three-point plays comes from “body control” coupled with a feel for where the contact is coming from and a skill for “manipulating the defense.”

And the defense can’t seem to stop it. 

He was a handful for Orlando even on a night when the Magic did so much right.

It held the Thunder to 45.7% shooting, snapping OKC’s streak of 10 straight games shooting 50% or better. And though the Magic sent Gilgeous-Alexander to the free-throw line 12 times, it held his teammates to nine combined attempts. 

But OKC was similarly stifling. It held the Magic to 46.4% shooting and 7 of 35 from 3-point range. 

And in a battle of teams that rank first and fourth in the NBA in forcing turnovers, Oklahoma City (which forces 15.9 per game) got 15; Orlando (15.2 per game) turned over the Thunder eight times. 

Magic star Paolo Banchero scored 20 points, but the Thunder — and Lu Dort in particular — made him earn them all. Banchero shot 8 for 19 from the floor and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. 

Daigneault called it a “really good, well-earned win.” 

But for all that was good, the night mostly was about Gilgeous-Alexander’s greatness. 

After the game, Dort — who has a reputation as one of the NBA’s stingiest defenders — was asked how he’d guard Gilgeous-Alexander. He talked mostly about the challenges, about how “crafty” his Canadian countryman is, about how his length allows him to rise up over contesting defenders for clean looks at jump shots.

“I don’t have an answer for you,” Dort said. “Like, I’m trying to think about it, but I don’t know.”

Some nights — and Saturday was one of them — it seems like nobody does.

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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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