There were only winners at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night, at least if you have a vested or even passing interest in Canadian basketball and its growth.
Raptors fan or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander supporter, there was something for everyone — and likely a lot of overlap, given the far-fetched idea (for now) of the 24-year-old playing for his (nearly) hometown team has been a subject of Raptors fans’ (and maybe management’s) fever dreams almost since the Hamilton product cracked the league.
The Raptors do well, people are happy, Gilgeous-Alexander does well, people are happy. It was a warm vibe, right until the wee hours when the Oklahoma City Thunder star rolled out on the floor in designer denim and custom jewelry. He posed for photos and gave out hugs to a hundred or so friends and family waiting for him post-game.
Meanwhile, the Raptors held off the Thunder for an impressive 128-111 win, a big one for their post-season hopes and good because the Raptors have driven much of the passion for the sport in Canada over the past 25 years. They helped light the fire for the sport that burns deeply in Gilgeous-Alexander. Who knows if another elite talent was watching at home, plotting to be like Shai, or Raptors guard Fred VanVleet? The better the Raptors are, the more people watch, then play and then watch some more.
The victory was Toronto’s second straight in a critical stretch of seven games of eight at home that will likely tip the balance on their topsy-turvy season. The Raptors improved to 34-36 and climbed within a half-game of eighth-place Atlanta in the East. The Thunder dropped to 34-36 and into a tie for 10th place with the Los Angeles Lakers in the West.
Gilgeous-Alexander – one of the league’s breakout stories this season — didn’t dominate the way he’s capable, though there were plenty of flashes. The Raptors’ determination to show the Canadian layers of defenders — especially in the second half — took its toll, but not before the NBA’s fifth-leading scorer, first-time all-star and soon-to-be all-NBA guard managed 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting, including 13 in the second quarter when he showed how difficult he can be to contain off the dribble. Similarly, Lu Dort, the burly perimeter defender from Montreal, had a hard time finding room offensively as he finished with 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting.
But Gilgeous-Alexander’s body of work leading up to this point in the season has already had an effect. The fifth-year guard from Hamilton has transitioned from up-and-comer to full-blown star, capable of lifting his team as the Thunder’s rebuild gains momentum faster than anyone anticipated — as a young, international squad with a very much made-in-Canada flavour.
Gilgeous-Alexander arrived in Toronto averaging 31.3 points a game with 5.6 assists, 1.7 steals and one assist. He’s already been an all-star and is just getting started. He’s somehow ambitious and patient. Like his game, he’s moving at his own pace, but getting places in a hurry.
“There’s a lot of things on my list,” he said, when asked about his individual goals. “MVPs, all-NBA teams, championships, but I think what I try to focus on is just getting better every day and learning from a loss or a win, everything good or bad in the league. That’s what I’ve learned throughout my career and it’s worked so far, so I won’t stop now.”
Somehow the ambition doesn’t seem boastful, and as the longest-tenured member of the youngest team in the league, Gilgeous-Alexander has moved seamlessly into a leadership role as well.
“Well, I think what makes [Gilgeous-Alexander] special, for as talented as he is and as much as he has established his status in the NBA, he really doesn’t like to be singled out. He wants to be part of the group and part of the team,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “ And so, I think he would be resistant for getting too much credit for that and that is part of what makes him special. But he deserves a lot of credit for it.
“He’s furthest along in terms of pay scale — he got paid before these guys — he’s older than a lot of our players. He’s now been an all-star and has established himself as one of the premier players in the league.
“For a guy who could so easily drift from the group because of those things, he uses all that and throws his weight back into the team, tries to give guys confidence and is just a joyful guy. He is just a light personality that gives our team a lot of joy in the gym every day but also a lot of confidence and swagger on the court and the combination of that — just the contagiousness that he brings, and I would throw Dort in there with his competitiveness and toughness. The contagiousness those guys bring to the group is just incredible.”
It’s an energy the Raptors play with when they’re at their best and which has been fleeting so often this season. But they have a brief window left in the season to capture it, and unfortunately for the Thunder and Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort’s homecoming, they’re finding it now.
The Raptors didn’t blow the game open but they kept prying the seams until it eventually cracked as they pushed a six-point lead to start the fourth quarter to 11 early in the period and then to 16 midway through before extending it to 20 as the Thunder went cold in the face of Toronto defensive pressure, and garbage time ensued.
The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam, who shook off a recent slump to score 25 while adding eight assists to lead six Raptors in double figures – all five starters with at least 16 for the first time this season and Gary Trent Jr., who had 23 points in a slump-breaking performance off the bench.
“I always say you’ve got to take what’s there, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse of Toronto’s widely distributed attack. “Some nights it’s a very equal opportunity thing, some nights it isn’t so much depending on the coverages, but I thought everybody had their moments tonight, all the way through. Those six guys really all produced, shot pretty good percentage. Good number of assists, which is good, low turnovers. So there was a lot of good, good stuff there.”
Toronto held the Thunder to 42.6 per cent shooting while the Raptors converted on 49 per cent of their attempts and made 14 threes to 13 for the visitors.
As much as the game was critical for each team’s playoff hopes, there was almost no loser, at least in the bigger picture. Having Gilgeous-Alexander emerge as one of the best young players in the sport is an undeniably exciting thing for basketball in Canada.
For all of the Canadian talent in the league over the past couple of decades the nothing draws people to the sport more than stars. The combination of Vince Carter’s wattage with the Raptors and Steve Nash emerging as one of the biggest stars in the game more than 20 years ago are often cited as influences by the waves of Canadian players who made it to the NBA a decade later.
The success of the Raptors over the previous decade and the pending stardom of Gilgeous-Alexander — supported by Dort, Jamal Murray, Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett and more — should keep the game growing for decades to come. It’s been a good week like that in Toronto, with Murray having just been in town Monday, Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort on Thursday night and Nickeil Alexander-Walker arriving Saturday with Minnesota.
“I think this is a good example where we’re seeing it on a nightly basis but where we are now,” said Nurse, who doubles as the Canadian national team head coach. “It just seems like every time we turn around we’re playing against a homegrown like super talent, right? And I think you know, the progression is there’s numbers now. You’re getting some all-stars now and that kind of stuff and I think it’s great for the future of the game in this country.
“I just I just really think it has to motivate the younger kids a lot. Gives them somebody to look up to. Those kids are out there wearing those guys jerseys … I think you’ll see benefits of the 2019 [Raptors championship] season and benefits of these guys becoming all-stars and stuff down the road. I think that’ll only manifest itself.”
In the moment each, team was trying to manifest a win for their own immediate interests: a spot in their responsive conference’s play-in tournament where each could be projected as a tough out.
The two teams were evenly matched in the first quarter, with the Raptors leading 29-28, but that’s when Gilgeous-Alexander got rolling. It was a collection of scores so simple yet difficult, they might as well be his trademark. The Raptors were trying to show him two defenders as early as possible in the possession, but it didn’t seem to faze him as he would glide to full speed, wriggle his way into the paint, hit the brakes and rise up for a variety of leaners, floaters and other finishes off his right foot, his left foot and with either hand.
No one had cracked that code this season, and Toronto couldn’t early on.
But the Raptors kept pace with Trent Jr. coming off the bench and heating up after going 5-of-29 in his last three games. The shooting guard hit a pair of threes in transition and made a steal that he took for a lay-up and ended up with 14 at half, one of four Raptors to hit double figures by the intermission. Gilgeous-Alexander had the last word with a contested three at the horn, but Toronto led 59-54 to start the third quarter even with the Hamilton kid’s 19 points in the first half, 13 in the second quarter.
The Raptors tightened up their defence on Gilgeous-Alexander in the third, showing him multiple bodies in the paint each time he ventured in there. It had some effect as he scored just four in the third on 1-of-5 shooting, compared with 9-of-10 in the first half. Josh Giddey — the talented Australian guard — took up the slack with seven points in the period while Scottie Barnes came to life with eight of in the third as Toronto started the fourth leading 93-87.
Toronto was the better team from that point on and Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t get the homecoming he wanted. But Canadian basketball fans of almost any stripe likely went home with something to be happy about and look forward to.