Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lights up the Rockets from long range

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lights up the Rockets from long range

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is hard enough to stop in the paint. Lately he’s showing an expansion to outside the 3-point line.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Feb 28, 2024, 6:15am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Feb 28, 2024, 6:15am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Dillon Brooks had a hand up to contest, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seemed scarcely to notice. 

In was late in the Thunder’s 112-95 win against Houston on Tuesday when Gilgeous-Alexander — the OKC MVP candidate — rocked into his step-back jumper from 3-point range and Brooks, his Canadian countryman and a lockdown Rocket defender, leapt and extended a hand. 

Given Gilgeous-Alexander’s excellence and efficiency inside the arc, the long-range shot is one the Rockets — and most NBA teams — can live with him taking. 

But lately, the Thunder star has been a long-range killer.

He hit a season-high four 3-pointers Tuesday, continuing a string of hot shooting from outside the arc en route to 31 points in the Thunder’s sixth straight win. 

“Just making the defense pay for sagging,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “If it’s a shot that they’re giving me, being able to make it makes them guard me tighter and then I can drive.”

And that’s the crux of a potential defensive dilemma for OKC opponents. 

At 31.2 points per game, Gilgeous-Alexander is the league’s third-leading scorer. And he’s doing that with a low volume of 3-point attempts, shooting 3.4 per game. 

Gilgeous-Alexander leads the league in points off drives at 17.2 per game, so conventional wisdom is to play a step off him in an effort to impede his path to the basket. 

Even if you lose the game, 3-point shots from Gilgeous-Alexander have been a win for your defense. 

But there are signs that’s starting to change. 

During a nine-game stretch from Dec. 6-Dec. 26, Gilgeous-Alexander made 4 of 28 3-pointers. That’s 14.3%. 

But in 30 games since, he’s 48 of 102 (47.1%) from behind the 3-point line. And Gilgeous-Alexander’s season 3-point shooting is up to 38.9%, which would be the second-highest of his career. 

So how does a defense slow the NBA’s most dangerous driver if he’s also a deep threat? 

“What do you give up?” teammate Chet Holmgren asked, rhetorically. 

Gilgeous-Alexander’s hard enough to guard as an average 3-point shooter. What happens if he makes a long-range leap? 

It’s challenging math. 

And the Rockets couldn’t find solutions Tuesday. 

Though Houston crowded Gilgeous-Alexander on his drives and held him to 5-of-13 shooting in the paint, loading up against dribble penetration left him long-range opportunities. He hit two pull-up 3-pointers and two step-backs. 

Teammate Jalen Williams said he watches Gilgeous-Alexander work on his 3-point shot “all the time,” so it’s “no shock that it’s going in.”

“But he just kind of understands how teams are guarding him,” Williams said. “You gotta live with something, and he’s shooting really well. So when you have to respect that part of his game, it just opens up the floor.”

Williams had 24 points and Holmgren 18 on Tuesday, and though it’s hardly the only reason they’ve thrived this season, each benefits from the defensive attention paid Gilgeous-Alexander. 

It helped against the Rockets, though OKC’s own defense played a significant role in the win. The Thunder (41-17) held Houston to 38.9% shooting, including 9 of 39 from 3-point range. 

But even with dogged defense and balanced offense — four of OKC’s five starters scored in double figures, with Josh Giddey pitching in 14 points — it was hard not to make note of Gilgeous-Alexander’s barrage beyond the arc. 

In four games since the All-Star break, Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 55.6% on 4.5 3-point attempts per game. 

That’s still a relatively small part of his arsenal. Luka Doncic — the most similar player to Gilgeous-Alexander among the NBA’s top MVP candidates — takes 10.3 3-pointers per game. 

Seventeen NBA players shoot at least eight 3s per game. 

But while the 3-pointer is “obviously not (Gilgeous-Alexander’s) bread and butter,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, the sixth-year guard “shoots good ones and is shooting them efficiently,” Daigneault said. 

And there’s a chance he could come to shoot more. 

Gilgeous-Alexander anticipates that come playoff time, he’ll see new defensive looks, including more schemes where teams sag off and dare him to shoot long-range shots. 

“I want to be able to be comfortable and have seen it before and know how to attack it and take advantage of it when that time comes,” he said. 

And if he masters that balance, what then?

How do you guard the guy if he gets anywhere near as dangerous from long distance as he is around the rim?

“I’m not gonna sit here and try and tell people how to stop it,” Holmgren said. “They got to figure it out.”

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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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