OKLAHOMA CITY — He makes it look easy.
It’s the highest compliment you can pay an athlete who competes at the highest level of any sport. While everyone else is grinding and straining and sweating and trying to find an edge against their peers, the very best glide and flow and somehow make time their friend rather than an enemy.
It’s a magic trick that very few can manage, but Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could have a Las Vegas residency taming tigers given how adept is he at making everyone else on the basketball floor wonder ‘how does he do that?’
So far this season, no one has figured out how to stop it, or even make him look like he couldn’t pause mid-move and check his watch.
He had all the time in the world against the Toronto Raptors who were caught staring most of the night as the Oklahoma City Thunder coasted to a 132-113 win that was never in doubt from the moment the ball went up.
The surprisingly listless Raptors fell to 7-6 as they head to Indianapolis to take on another young team playing above expectations Saturday night while the Thunder improved to 5-7 and are showing they have no plans to roll over and wait for the draft lottery this season — at least not yet.
By the standards Gilgeous-Alexander has set for himself, it wasn’t a particular remarkable night. But he didn’t have to strain himself to score 20 points while adding four assists and three steals while shooting 8-of-14 in just 28 minutes, which was all the Thunder needed from him.
Predictably, the Raptors tried to trap Gilgeous-Alexander and just as predictably the tactic didn’t bother him a bit. He moved the ball willingly and in good time, and the Thunder benefited: They had eight players score in double figures.
“I knew coming into the game that they blitz ball-handlers,” said Gilgeous-Alexander when I asked him about striking the balance between being aggressive and trusting his teammates. “I just wanted to make sure my teammates were ready on the back end, make good reads and. It’s something we see often, I just wanted to make sure we were aggressive and ready to make a play coming out of it.”
But even on cruise control, he plays with a style few can match.
One moment he’s splitting a trap at the top and then turning himself sideways to squeeze his six-foot-six frame between two more defenders before laying a left-handed finger roll off the glass above the square and softly through the mesh.
On another he rides the clutch and taps the gas, playing cat-and-mouse with the defence before snapping a no-look bounce pass across his body and between the fingernails of a pair or Raptors hands to a cutting teammate for a dunk. He can pass cross-court with his left hand and finish lay-ups with either hand off either leg, all while seemingly moving in slow-motion.
But Gilgeous-Alexander had plenty of help against Toronto. Fellow Canadians Lu Dort and Eugene Omoruyi — a pair of undrafted prospects built like linebackers who have earned spots in the league by playing a bruising style of 1-through-5 defence — stepped up offensively, adding 13 and 22 points, respectively, while shooting 12-of-17 combined.
The Raptors lacked any particular spark.
Four of the five starters were in double figures, but rookie Christian Koloko struggled with the Thunder’s onslaught of speed and size and checked out after 25 minutes with two points and four rebounds.
Fred VanVleet had 15 points and was 3-of-7 from three but he had to battle against the physicality of Dort and Omoruyi and had a warming pad on his troublesome back when he was loosening up at halftime. He later left the game with a non-COVID illness.
The bright spot was Chris Boucher, who shook off some lacklustre performances recently to lead Toronto with 20 points and 12 rebounds off the bench.
Overall, the Thunder looked the bigger, faster, stronger team and looked comfortable at every turn as they shot 54.9 per cent. They led 70-56 at the half and would have had a bigger margin were it not for 11 turnovers. They took care of the ball better after that and the blowout was on.
Gilgeous-Alexander has been rolling so far this season, stringing together games at a level almost no Canadian has ever played, save perhaps Jamal Murray during the 2021 NBA bubble and Steve Nash at his MVP-peak. And maybe not even then.
The man known as SGA came into the game averaging 31.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists with a True Shooting percentage of 62.7 per cent. He’s also contributing 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks a night.
For reference, the only other players to ever put up 30/5/5 and 1.5 steals per game with a TS per centage of 62.0 or better are Steph Curry and James Harden, and neither of them averaged a blocked shot per game.
And do we need to mention he’s a beloved teammate? Hard-working, humble and the kind of person who daps up every coach, trainer, rebounder, and ball-boy before he leaves the floor following his pre-game shooting routine?
”… He sees the bigger picture at a pretty elite rate for a young player and that benefits him and us long term and it also benefits you in a game where, you know, teams clearly are going to try to scheme to take him out and try to frustrate him,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault.
“The worst thing you could do against that tactic is like try to jam the ball in there. You know, it’s deflating, quite frankly … he was just very content with choosing his spots, letting his teammates make the plays. It empowers everybody else and really allows us to develop our team.”
It’s early, but what he’s doing – the scoring, the leading, the decision-making – is bananas.
“He has got as good a first step as there is in the league. When you square him up to guard him, he’s by you fast,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who saw Gilgeous-Alexander firsthand when he coached him this summer on the Canadian national team. “The speed that he has got getting by you and then to the rim is at an elite level.
“And then again, he’s grown in his game. Maybe his first couple of years it was sprint to the rim, lay it in every time and that was his move. Now he has really good control of the six, eight, 10, 12 feet area too when he needs to get to two feet and stop, and then he’s got a little turnaround on the block too. …I just think he’s developing skills to fight or combat what people are throwing at him or how they are playing him.”
For those reasons and more it’s impossible not to imagine what Gilgeous-Alexander would look like with Raptors — he’s exactly what they would want and need: a local superstar who is long and active defensively, a leader on and off the floor who breaks down defences better than anyone in the NBA.
During those two-a-day practices working with Gilgeous-Alexander this past summer at the OVO Athletic Centre, did Nurse ever allow himself to dream the impossible dream? SGA as a Raptor?
Nurse is too well-versed in the NBA’s tampering rules to get caught on that one:
“Well, I think I’m fortunate enough to get to work with him with Canada,” he said. “And you know how that goes: Thou shalt not talk about other team’s players.”
But let’s be real: The idea that the Raptors are paying any special attention to Gilgeous-Alexander’s availability falls into the category of ‘duh’ rather than news.
Reality check: Toronto has been enamoured with the lanky guard since his draft year in 2019 when he was taken 11th overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. The same summer than they ended up trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors were working hard to cut a deal with the Clippers to for one of their lottery picks that year. The Clippers wouldn’t budge, and the Raptors eventually ended up making the deal for Leonard, but Toronto was an early joiner to the SGA bandwagon.
Toronto doesn’t have to monitor anything, SGA is saved in their contacts, and vice-versa.
But trying to wish ‘SGA is a Raptor’ into existence is virtually futile. He would be, arguably, the most coveted trade asset in the NBA: a 24-year-old all-NBA talent in the first year of a five-year contract extension worth $180 million that will take him through the end of the 2026-27 in a world where the salary cap is rising, making his deal more team-friendly every year.
Gilgeous-Alexander would basically have to go on strike for the Thunder to feel forced into moving him, and as his team showed Friday night, while the wins have been tough to come by the last two seasons, there is talent around him, and more coming.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “And knowing the guys in the locker room personally, makes it more exciting: Guys mentalities, guys work ethic, it just makes it fun to be around and I’m very excited for the future.”
If Toronto fans want to believe in SGA as a Raptor, look at it this way: He’ll only be 28 when his current deal is up and will have enough juice at that point to likely be able to dictate his next destination if he chooses.
Don’t hold your breath, but the temptation is understandable.