How Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went from fourth-quarter disaster to game-winner

How Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went from fourth-quarter disaster to game-winner

In his first playoff game as the Thunder’s unquestioned superstar, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made his first entry in the ledger for playoff greatness.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Apr 22, 2024, 6:57am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Apr 22, 2024, 6:57am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shook his head ever so slightly.

Then after a moment, he did it again.

That’s about as outwardly frustrated as you’ll see the Thunder superstar. He rarely shows emotion during games. And annoyance? Irritability? Dissatisfaction? Well, SGA shows that as often as he has four misses and three turnovers in crunch time.

But that rarity was reality Sunday night in the Thunder’s return to the playoffs.

Gilgeous-Alexander found himself in the middle of a fourth-quarter stretch that can only be described as disastrous. Not just by his standards. By any standards. Even on a night when the Thunder didn’t grab enough rebounds or cause nearly enough turnovers to counterbalance its lack of rebounding, SGA’s late struggles threatened to be the Thunder’s undoing.

Then, in a flash, SGA was SGA again.

And victory was snatched from the jaws of disaster.

Thunder 94, Pelicans 92.

The game-tying pull-up jumper with 1:35 left?

SGA.

The go-ahead and-one with 32.5 seconds left?

SGA again.

“MVP moment for sure,” Jalen Williams said.

There’ll be no argument from the Thunder faithful who packed Paycom Center for Game 1 of this Western Conference playoff series. They had it rocking from 30 minutes before tipoff until the end, and they were never louder than when SGA drove toward the basket, stopped and faded away, took contact from a flailing CJ McCollum and dropped a one-handed shot softly through the basket with under a minute to go.

“Just caught the ball at the elbow,” SGA said, “and just tried to be aggressive and make a play that I’ve made before.”

His ensuing free throw accounted for his game-high 28th point, and yet, this wasn’t the normal night we’ve come to expect from the MVP candidate. He was 11 of 24 from the floor, off from his usual highly efficient shooting, and he hit none of the three shots he attempted from behind the arc. He went to the free-throw line just seven times.

He had six rebounds and four assists, but he also had three turnovers.

On the defensive end, he had no steals and no blocks. 

Not exactly a memorable performance in SGA’s first playoff game as the guy. He’s been in the playoffs before, of course. As a rookie with the Clippers. As a second-year player with the Thunder in the bubble. This was his first playoff game as the unquestioned superstar.

And it nearly ended in disaster with a fourth quarter that was particularly rocky.

Here’s what SGA did in the first 10:25 of the frame: miss, make, miss from three, miss from three, miss that was blocked, turnover, turnover, turnover. miss from three.

Yikes.

That’s when the frustration showed, even if subtly.

“I’m upset when I make a mistake, miss a shot,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’m upset probably for about 10 or 15 seconds, and then it’s the next possession. If you want to win, you have to do so, you have to move on. 

“There’s so many possessions late in the game when it slows down that if you let the previous possession distract you, you’ll let the game slip. I just try not to do so.”

Sunday night, he grabbed it by the throat.

It would’ve been easy for Gilgeous-Alexander to go the other way after the way he was playing early in the fourth quarter. He missed a couple of wide-open looks from behind the arc. He threw the ball to no one a couple of times, first on what looked like a miscommunication with Chet Holmgren, then on a pass to Lu Dort that was wildly off the mark. 

“You’re going to have bad shooting nights. You’re gonna have dumb turnovers. All the same things are gonna happen in a playoff game,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “They just feel different.”

More heightened. More important.

And that can make them more devastating, hence the moments of frustration from SGA.

But … 

“It doesn’t really come out in his play,” Williams said. “We look to him with the confidence that radiates off of him and then just play off that, so (signs of frustration are) something we don’t really notice. We try and pick him up, but it’s really not like he’s down even to have to pick him up.

“He’s willing to do whatever it takes.”

That’s what he did Sunday. With the Thunder in desperate need of a basket — it had gone more than five minutes without one — SGA hit that pull-up jumper with 1:35 left. Then after a flurry of Pelican shots that was ultimately thwarted by a Holmgren block, SGA made that feathery fallaway over McCollum.

Consider it the first entry into his career ledger for playoff greatness, being able to turn on a dime and go from rocky to rock star, from near disaster to unquestioned hero. 

He stared straight ahead with that uncanny cool. No more frustration. No more head shaking.

Gilgeous-Alexander left that to the Pelicans.

 

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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