Canadians Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort shine in Thunder’s win over Raptors

Oklahoma City Thunder's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (centre) drives to the net between Toronto Raptors' Gary Trent Jr. (right) and Fred VanVleet during second half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said it’s a game he is always excited to play. The Hamilton product said playing at Scotiabank Arena in front of friends and family is a childhood dream he gets to live out every visit.

“It’s an exciting feeling. Knowing all my family and friends are in the stands. It’s a court I grew up watching. It’s always fun. [The atmosphere] was electric,” he said. “Every time I’ve been here it has been. It’s very fun to play here.

“It’s no different for Lu Dort, even though he grew up in Montreal.

“I mean, as a kid all the Canadians’ dreams are to play here in this arena,” he said. “And you know, it’s always good to be back in the country. “

For the budding stars on the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, Wednesday night was an evening they’d been looking forward to since the NBA schedule came out.

And they played like it.

For the Toronto Raptors, who are trying to re-establish any kind of homecourt advantage, hoping to build some semblance of momentum, it turns out Wednesday was just 1-of-82. Or at least they played long stretches of the game that way.

They paid for it in the end as Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort combined for 48 points and outlasted the Raptors in a 110-109 photo finish. Toronto spent long stretches of the second half trying to give the game away before a big rally fell just short, as a potentially game-winning tip by Justin Champagnie was ruled to come just after the horn sounded following a review, rendering the celebration moot and the mood suddenly sombre.

The Raptors controlled the game for the first half and then put it on cruise in the third quarter and got swarmed by the Thunder, who held Toronto to 5-of-27 shooting, won the period 33-12 and turned an 11-point third quarter deficit into a 14-point fourth quarter lead in the space of 14 minutes.

“It was kinda indicative of us just kinda being in second gear all night. I thought we just weren’t ready to move and run, we weren’t pushing the ball hard,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “… Just poor energy, poor effort kind of stuff.”

The loss blunted the Raptors’ modest two-game winning streak and dropped them to 4-9 at home and 11-14 overall.

The Raptors did storm back from down 14 with just over six minutes to play, with Fred VanVleet sparking them with three deep threes, the last tying the game with a minute left. Toronto went up by two twice after that before Thunder veteran big Mike Muscala hit what proved to be a game-winning three with 9.4 seconds left after the defence collapsed on Gilgeous-Alexander one more time. A VanVleet runner in the final seconds appeared to be blocked and Champagnie’s game-winning tap was waived off.

Injuries aside, the Raptors were left questioning their own effort in the face of what Thunder delivered — led by a pair with Canadian passports.

“I don’t have a great answer for you,” VanVleet said when asked about the Raptors’ lack of spark. “It seems to be our pattern: play well, play really bad, get yelled at, play really hard, do it all over again. So, it’s disappointing for sure but it is what it is.”

It shouldn’t be, is the point, and VanVleet made it clearly.

“I mean, we’re professionals, it shouldn’t take that. You gotta show up to work and do your job every day. It’s not about box score stats, it’s not about scoring, it’s not about awards, it’s not about individual accolades or individual plays,” VanVleet added. “It’s about winning ball games and doing things the right and we just can’t seem to sustain that long enough to win against teams we must think we’re better than. It doesn’t work like that in the NBA because they were the better team tonight.”

The Thunder? They’ve now won two straight and are 7-10 since early November, which may run counter to their seemingly endless rebuilding project as they try find their way through the NBA with the league’s youngest roster, an unprecedented collection of future draft picks and a situation in which Gilgeous-Alexander, 23 and Dort, 22 are de facto veterans.

“I know for a fact we’re getting better every day,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Now, what the future holds? I can’t control it. That’s what I try to do, just stay in the moment. Focus on day to day, try to get better every day, wherever that takes us, that takes us. But we’re headed in the right direction for sure.”

That’s the Raptors’ hope too, even as they try to weather steady drip of injuries. The latest was Precious Achiuwa being a late scratch as he reaggravated the shoulder tendinitis that held him out for three games last month. He joined Khem Birch (knee) and OG Anunoby (hip) on the sidelines as the Raptors figure out how to make do with makeshift lineups.

“I’m really trying to concentrate on what we’re doing and see if we can keep, feel like we’re inching forward and I wanna just keep inching…” said Nurse before the game. “…If we’re solid and keep improving and play defence and play together and all that kind of stuff, then any night we go out there, we’re going to give ourselves a decent chance.”

But if they don’t do those things? If they don’t play solidly and pay attention to detail and bring a consistent effort for all four quarters? The Raptors are just good enough to get beat by a weak team, which is what happened against Oklahoma City.

Full credit to the Canadians. The 6-foot-6 Gilgeous-Alexander had the Raptors on a string all night with his remarkable ability to change pace with his dribble and slither in and out of tight spaces, either positioning himself for a wide range of crafty finishes or to rifle passes out to open shooters.

“He’s a heck of a player,” said VanVleet. “Once they got in the bonus it was pretty hard to guard the ball from there.”

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Meanwhile, Dort has turned himself from an undrafted tweener that most of the league thought would struggle to score well enough to earn steady playing time into an emerging two-way star. He is a legitimate threat from deep and can force his way to the rim.

Both of the Canadians had all their qualities on full display. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 26 points, nine assists and was 12-of-12 from the line. Dort had 22 points and — just as important — kept VanVleet bottled up for most of the night until the Raptors guard shook loose for 14 points in the final quarter, though his 6-of-20 line can’t be overlooked. His nine assists showed that he was trying to get others involved to help the cause.

“Obviously, Lu’s a great defender, he did a really good job on Fred,” said Nurse. “… He played him really physical and played him really good.”

OKC and its two young Canadian stars showed up, played hard and earned a win and a memory for themselves.

The team they grew up watching didn’t meet their passion with enough of their own.

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