TORONTO -- The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t a very good team.
Coming into Wednesday ranked dead-last in offensive rating and third-last net rating with a 7-16 record, it would even be safe to say that the Thunder are, in fact, a very poor NBA team.
Not that you’d know it based on how they performed Wednesday night.
And, specifically speaking, the performance of their two star guards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort, who also just so happen to be Canadian.
In their homecoming, Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort combined for 48 points on 14-of-35 shooting as the Thunder managed to hold onto a 110-109 victory over the Raptors on Wednesday.
And though it came down to a final tip-in from Raptors forward Justin Champagnie that was inevitably ruled to not count for the Thunder to seal their victory, the poise that the two Canucks showed a glimpse of what could be a brighter future for a Thunder team that not only is bad statistically, but is designed to be bad. Oklahoma City is looking to continue building through the draft and, perhaps, make a deal centred around an abundance of draft capital (18 future first-round picks and 16 second-round picks).
But maybe that future the Thunder are building towards is a little closer than they, perhaps initially thought.
After getting embarrassed by the Memphis Grizzlies in record-setting fashion last Thursday, the Thunder have responded with two consecutive wins and have Gilgeous-Alexander, largely, to thank for that.
Gilgeous-Alexander went off for 30 points and 13 assists on Monday in a victory against the Detroit Pistons, and then followed that up with the 26-point, nine-dime performance Wednesday against the Raptors -- exploding in the second half with 18 points and 10 free throws made in as many attempts.
It was Gilgeous-Alexander who helped fuel a 25-3 Thunder run to close the third quarter that proved to be the major deciding factor in the game. He also made the play that gave the Thunder the win by driving into the heart of the Raptors’ defence, drawing four defenders and kicking out to a wide-open Mike Muscala, who drilled it with 9.4 seconds left to play.
“In the fourth quarter, I noticed they went to a box-and-one,” said Gilgeous-Alexander after the game. “So, I knew that once I got by my guy there would be four guys waiting for me and I just wanted to try and draw as many guys as I could in. Pump fake, had a couple guys on me, then Mike was open.”
Of course, Gilgeous-Alexander’s second-half heroics wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Dort’s first-half play.
The Thunder trailed by 10, 64-54, at the half, but it would’ve been a lot more had it not been for the 14 points (of the 22 he scored for the game) he poured in that first half.
In just his third season as an undrafted free agent looked over because of thought-of offensive limitations, Dort has become a key offensive player for this Thunder team, and the assertive drives to the hoop and easy-looking threes he was hitting in the first half of Wednesday’s game were good evidence of the kind of player he’s become.
“I think starting that off the way he did -- being undrafted -- was good early adversity for him that really tempered his expectations and sent an early signal that he’s gonna have earn everything he gets, and he has earned everything he’s gotten day after day since he’s been here,” said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault before the game of Dort.
Even more impressive, is that this offensive improvement in Dort’s game hasn’t come at the expense of his noted and rightfully vaunted defensive ability.
“I don’t think his defence has dropped off and, with his offence picking up, he just brings it on both ends of the floor,” said Daignealt. “Defensively, he’s become a luxury for us. There’s a lot of perimeter players in the league that can keep you up at night and we’ve got a guy that’s an elite matchup against those guys. And that’s not to say that he shuts them down, but he makes them earn everything and he’s tough to play against because he just keeps coming and he’s also got great physicality and he’s a great athlete.”
Dort’s defence was instrumental in the Thunder’s victory Wednesday, as he hounded Raptors guard Fred VanVleet all night, holding VanVleet to just 6-of-20 shooting from the floor, despite VanVleet getting hot late to make the game more interesting down the stretch.
“He's a tough matchup,” said Dort of VanVleet. “He can do a lot and he didn’t really have it going in the first half and, you know, he just stepped up at the end and took some big shots and his team needed him and felt like he did good just taking tough shots and making them.”
Fortunately for Dort and the Thunder, however, those big shots of VanVleet proved to come too late. Although given the extra boost he and Gilgeous-Alexander got from playing at home again, it may not have mattered even if VanVleet had it going earlier.
“It’s an exciting feeling, knowing all my family and friends are in the stands,” said Hamilton native Gilgeous-Alexander of playing back home again. “It’s a court I grew up watching. It’s always fun.”
Added the Montreal native Dort: “As a kid just, you know, all the Canadians dreams are to play here in this arena and it was just great to have a lot of people here from Montreal, you know, just here supporting me and even some people I don't even know that was yelling my name in the crowd and stuff like that, so it just felt great. And, you know, it's always good to be back in the country.”
And, better yet for Dort, he’s looking forward to potentially representing the country again, as well.
“I will be participating in the next Team Canada,” said Dort on Tuesday when asked about participation with the national team. “I’ll be there with them trying to vie for a spot and I feel like we will have a great team.”
For now, though, the team Dort, and Gilgeous-Alexander, is playing for are the Thunder who aren’t quite so great a team yet.
But it’s building, and will continue to built with lots of help from the team’s two Northern Lights.