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Unsung Hero: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is killing it in the Thunder/Rockets series

Unsung Hero: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is killing it in the Thunder/Rockets series

The opening tip of Game 1 of the series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets was back tapped by Steven Adams. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander corralled the ball and set on a mission to the rim, but his layup attempt rolled out.

He didn’t attempt another shot until 6:29 remained . . . in the 2nd quarter.

Shai had stymied his way to the basket once again. It didn’t go in, either.

His final line for game 1 was a meager 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 assist. Shooting an abysmal 25/33/100 on only 8 attempts for the entirety of the game. Later, he got four free throws to fall, hit a 3 early in the 3rd, and finished a dunk in the fourth quarter when the game was seemingly already out of reach.

Since this came at the hands of a loss in which the Thunder seemed outmatched from the opening tip, Thunder fans searched for a reason, an excuse, a scapegoat to their struggles. Shai became the target.

Disappointing. Timid. Pathetic. Soft. Scared.

All were used to describe his performance. Whether you agreed with the criticism or not, one thing you couldn’t deny is that if the Thunder were going to be able to win this series, it was going to take a much better effort from Shai.

Second verse

Game 2 came, and from the jump you could see a difference in SGA’s game.

In 7 minutes of action, Gilgeous-Alexander had already equaled his total points scored in Game 1. And he wasn’t done.

Shai continued to be aggressive throughout the game on his way to an impressive bounce-back performance scoring the basketball. In Game 2, SGA scored 31 points, on 52.9/42.9/90.9 splits, while attempting a team high 17 shots. More than DOUBLE his attempts in Game 1. And yet, the Thunder still found themselves on the wrong side of victory.

In Game 3, the rest of the team finally pulled it together. Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, and Danilo Gallinari all scored over 20 points.

Then you have Shai.

The second-year player had a ridiculous line of 23 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists to 1 turnover, 4 steals, 1 block on 50/42.9/100 splits on 18 shot attempts, and then he hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 14.3 seconds left that put the Thunder ahead by one.

In Game 4, Dennis was huge with an efficient 30 points, CP3 scored 8 of his 26 points in the clutch, and Lu Dort shut down Harden playing with 5 fouls for much of the 4th quarter. Among the critical efforts, Shai stepped up yet again: 18 points, 12 rebounds (!), 6 assists to 1 turnover, on 41.2/40/100 splits.

The refrain

His game (excluding Game 2, where he was in so much of a zone you would think he was slinging Mjölnir) has been anything but loud. But the fact of the matter is SGA has quietly been the Thunder’s most consistent player in the playoffs, and the Thunder don’t stand a chance without his production.

His efforts have been somewhat unsung while others have gone off, but every banger needs a solid chorus to anchor those 16 bars.

After his abysmal Game 1 performance, this is his stat line for Games 2-4:

  • 24 ppg
  • 8.3 rpg
  • 4.7 apg to 1 tpg
  • 1.7 spg
  • 48.1/42.1/99.3 shooting splits

Not only has he been playing amazingly well, but he has been the iron man for OKC, averaging more than 43 minutes per game over the last three games, the highest of any player in this series.

In comparison, James Harden has played 37.6 minutes, and Paul has played 37.9 minutes.

To further put this into perspective, Russell Westbrook in his World War Westbrook tour in 2017 against the Rockets, in which his team fell off an absolute canyon when he sat out, played 38.9 minutes during that series. (Yes, I know Russ was older and asked to do so much more, I get that.)

Even if you add Game 1 from a minutes standpoint, he still averages 41.2 minutes. That leads all players in the postseason.

Hitting the right notes

Shai took what was arguably one of the worst games of his career and he learned from it. He learned that he needed to be more aggressive. He learned his team couldn’t win without him. He learned that there are many different ways to help your team win.

Yes, it’s easy to praise Dennis for showing everyone why he deserves to be 6th Man of the Year.

Yes, it’s easy to praise CP3 for being the clutchest player in the league (and it’s still not close).

Yes, it’s easy to praise Lu Dort for being the elite James Harden-stopper.

But while all that is happening, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has quietly been an efficient and consistent killer for the Thunder in the playoffs.

Oh, and this is just his sophomore year.