Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flirts with history, lifts Thunder over Hornets

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flirts with history, lifts Thunder over Hornets

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a chance Friday to become the first Thunder player with a “five-by-five,” a numeric rarity in the NBA. He didn’t make history, but partially because he and OKC made such short work of Charlotte.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 3, 2024, 6:10am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 3, 2024, 6:10am CST

(To receive Brett Dawson’s This Week in Thunder newsletter on Mondays, subscribe here).

OKLAHOMA CITY — He didn’t knock anyone out of the way in pursuit of a rebound. He didn’t rack up fouls chasing shots to swat. 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was on the verge of something rare Friday night. And the fact that the Thunder guard didn’t get it —and didn’t sell out trying to — probably says something about him. 

But so do the stats he did rack up in a 126-106 win against the Hornets. 

Thirty-one points, three rebounds, nine assists, five steals and three blocked shots. 

It adds up to a terrific game by any statistical standard, a measure of the range of ways Gilgeous-Alexander can impact his team. 

But if you’re a certain kind of NBA numbers nerd, you’ve already noted where he came up short. . 

“What did he miss out on?” teammate Chet Holmgren asked when informed after the game that Gilgeous-Alexander had flirted with a famed five-by-five. 

The Thunder’s MVP candidate was two rebounds and two blocked shots away from a game with at least five each of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. 

In some NBA circles, those games are almost mythic. 

According to Basketball Reference site Stathead.com, there have been 21 five-by-fives since 1978 and none since Jusuf Nurkic had 24 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and five blocks for Portland in an overtime win against Sacramento in 2019. 

Only four active players — Nurkic, Anthony Davis , Draymond Green and Nicolas Batum — have recorded five-by-fives. No Thunder player has done it. 

Only two players ever — Andrei Kirilenko (three) and Hakeem Olajuwon (six) — have finished their careers with more than one. Only Olajuwon has recorded one with more than 30 points. He did it three times. 

So Gilgeous-Alexander had a chance to join rare company. 

He didn’t in part because the Thunder (34-15) so thoroughly hammered the Hornets (10-37) that Gilgeous-Alexander rested in the fourth quarter. 

He played 30 minutes. Nobody’s ever had a five-by-five in fewer than 34. 

Still, getting so close is a good indicator of all that Gilgeous-Alexander has done this season to spark his team’s surge to first place in the Western Conference, where it ended Friday tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

He’s third in the NBA in scoring at 31.3 points, and he’s averaging career highs in assists (6.4) and steals (a league-leading 2.3). At 5.6 rebounds, he’s just off his career-best 5.9. 

“He’s rounded that out over time,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “It’s impressive how he’s improved. The steals has been an ongoing thing; the blocks has been an ongoing thing, but his defense has improved every single year he’s been in the NBA. And the offensive end, I thought tonight he was really on one early. He had as good of a blend of his play and plays for other guys as he’s having all season.” 

At times, Daigneault said, Gilgeous-Alexander will try to “activate” his teammates by throwing the ball ahead to them. But the better approach, Daigneault said, is for Gilgeous-Alexander to leverage his offensive gravity — the way defenders are drawn to help against him — and react to it with plays that set up his teammates. 

“And he’s got to be aggressive first to do that, and then let the game tell him what to do,” Daigneault said. “I thought he did that at about as high a level as a player can do in the first half of that game.” 

By halftime, Gilgeous-Alexander had 18 points and seven assists. All five of his steals, all three of his blocks and two of his rebounds came in the first half, and the Thunder led the Hornets 73-42 at the break. 

Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t speak to reporters after Friday’s game — a rarity this season — but if he knew he was in five-by-five range, he didn’t say it to his teammates. Forward Lu Dort said he “wasn’t aware” of how close Gilgeous-Alexander had come. 

But he also wasn’t surprised. 

“I mean, he’s on the court a lot. He’s doing a lot of great stuff,” Dort said. “So those numbers are gonna come. At some point he’s gonna get 50 (points). It’s coming, definitely.” 

Gilgeous-Alexander had offered a similar sentiment Wednesday. 

Asked after a win over the Denver Nuggets about the recent scoring explosion in the NBA — with four players last week scoring 62 or more points in a game — he said an outing like that was coming from him “one day.”

“Hopefully sooner rather than later, just to get a taste of it,” he said then. “But once I’m out there, none of that is going through my mind. Just try to win the basketball game, and if it happens it happens.” 

Nothing historic happened against the Hornets. 

It didn’t have to. 

The Thunder put the game in cruise control in the second half, and though Charlotte never threatened, when it made something of a third-quarter push, Gilgeous-Alexander shoved back, scoring 13 points — 3-of-6 shooting, 6 of 8 at the free-throw line — to maintain a safe distance. 

The scoring still is what Gilgeous-Alexander does best, the part of his game that draws the most attention. 

But Friday was out of hand by the half because he’s so good at so many other things. 

“He’s a winning player in all aspects of what he does when he goes out there on the floor,” Holmgren said. “And he understands that you can’t just be a winning player on one side of the floor. He puts a lot of effort and intensity and detail into the defensive side as well, and it shows not only in the stats, but also within the game flow. He’s out there making winning plays.”

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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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