Cavs have no answers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Thunder win

Cavs have no answers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Thunder win

Often when Gilgeous-Alexander really gets going, it’s because of how he stops. But against the Cavs, he floored it.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Nov 9, 2023, 6:42am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Nov 9, 2023, 6:42am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY —  It hasn’t always been this way around here, but when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander told a reporter “Next question” during a postgame news conference Wednesday, it was playful. 

Gilgeous-Alexander was grinning. The mood in the room was light. 

And the guy with the question was Thunder teammate Chet Holmgren, the rookie who’d borrowed the media microphone after his team’s 128-120 win against Cleveland and asked Gilgeous-Alexander “How does it feel to know nobody can guard you?”

Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t share his feelings. 

After he hit Holmgren with the cheery “Next question” — a phrase Russell Westbrook practically weaponized against reporters in his time here — Gilgeous-Alexander quietly added, “’Night, Chet” as Holmgren left the room. 

It was a fitting farewell for a guy who’d just finished tucking in the Cavaliers. 

Gilgeous-Alexander scored a season-best 43 points, one shy of his career high. And though it was in many ways vintage, SGA there was a different spin on this big night. 

Often when Gilgeous-Alexander really gets going, it’s because of how he stops. 

He’s among the NBA’s best change-of-pace scorers, a herky-jerky, stop-and-go sensation. Gilgeous-Alexander plays at his own pace, and he can shift in a second from delirious to deliberate. 

But against the Cavs, he floored it. 

“I thought he was really on the gas,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. 

And though he raced ahead of the pack, he didn’t leave his teammates behind. 

Holmgren and forward Jalen Williams scored 15 points each. Lu Dort and Cason Wallace — defensive stalwarts against the Cavs’ Donovan Mitchell – each pitched in 14.

Some of that came because of what Gilgeous-Alexander created by blowing by the bigger Cavaliers and drawing defenders. When he barrels downhill, Dort said, it forces defense into rotations that leave someone open. 

“But at the same time it just brings so much energy and then momentum,” Dort said. “Just (him) playing fast, getting the ball out quick, I feel like it’s easier for us to score like that.”

It looked easy at times against the Cavs. 

The Thunder shot 51.2% from the floor, hit 12 of 28 3-pointers and got to the line 30 times, making 28. Gilgeous-Alexander did much of that damage himself, hitting 12 of 13 free throws. 

He looked at times like a one-man band. But Gilgeous-Alexander was getting support. 

Daigneault lauded Holmgren on Wednesday for his “unreal” influence on the “invisible parts of the game”: the way the threat of Holmgren’s outside shooting draws the attention of defenders; the way his presence as a lob threat keeps centers from contesting teammates’ drives. 

Holmgren’s gravity — and Gilgeous-Alexander’s brilliance — helped Dort find open 3-pointers, and he made 3 of 5. They helped allow Williams to slash to the basket in the fourth quarter, when he scored nine points after totaling six through the first three quarters. 

“No team’s walking in here like ‘We’re just going to give Shai 40 tonight or let him have it,’” Holmgren said. “So it comes down to all five of us on the floor being on the same page and executing things that open things up for other guys.”

It comes from ball and player movement and the respect defenses have to give other Thunder players, Holmgren said, adding “If there’s anybody that’s going to take advantage of it, it’s Shai.” 

He did that Wednesday, in part by forcing the issue. Gilgeous-Alexander said his faster pace was specific to the matchup, a chance to take advantage of 7-footers Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen in the Cavs’ starting lineup. 

“So a lot of times getting good looks at the cup is gonna come in transition just because they’re not as fast as us playing with all guards,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And then playing fast allows the rest of the guys around me to really get into the game and play (against) closeouts and then play to their strengths.”

It wasn’t just the offense that clicked. 

The Thunder, which ranks 29th of 30 NBA teams in defensive rebounding percentage, matched the Cavs on the glass, 41-41. OKC outscored Cleveland 18-17 in second-chance points. 

And the Thunder defense was better than the numbers might look. Cleveland made 50.6% of its shots, but OKC forced it into 20 turnovers, eight by starting point guard Darius Garland. 

Cavs star Donovan Mitchell — who scored 43 points in the Thunder’s come-from-behind win in Cleveland last month — got 20 on Wednesday on 8 for 23 shooting. He missed all but one of his nine 3-point attempts. 

Slowing stars is Dort’s duty, and he was the primary defender on Mitchell most of the night. But there was more to it than Dort’s on-ball attacking. Help defense was on time. Wallace was dogged when he got Mitchell on switches. 

“Lu’s not an independent contractor that we hire out to guard the best players,” Daigneault said. “I mean, we’ve got to do it with five, and I thought we did that tonight.” 

It’s the same sort of symmetry the Thunder offense found around Gilgeous-Alexander. 

His big night was the product of how “the ball moves and the floor moves” around him, Daignuealt said. It was the result of playing fast enough that the help defense was a step slow. 

And when it came, Gilgeous-Alexander found the teammate left behind. 

On a 43-point night, he tied Josh Giddey with a team-high six assists. 

It’s no wonder Holmgren asked that question on a night when the Cavs had no answers for Gilgeous-Alexander. 

“When they’re double-teaming me or loading extra hard, it’s always important to make the right play,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That’s just how I was taught to play. At the end of the day, I just want to win. Nothing else matters. And my teammates are pretty good, so it’s easy to trust them.”

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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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