LOS ANGELES — Shai vs. L.A. this week, and so far, it’s all square.
By splitting two games with the fifth-place Clippers, Oklahoma City remains 2½ games behind them, with an identical 36-37 record as the Lakers, who the Thunder face in a possible SGA-vs.-L.A. rubber match on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena, both teams jockeying for a place in the play-in.
That game won’t be as emotionally fraught for the home team as the previous two this week, but the Lakers could have the same issue as the Clippers did: SGA.
He’s a problem. A big one. And he’s not going away.
The 24-year-old is blossoming into a full-blown superstar, better even than the best-case scenario imagined for him by adoring Clipper fans when he was their rookie and answering to “Slinq,” as Lou Williams called him.
Better even than what the Oklahoma City faithful who have had a front-row seat for the past three seasons pictured at the start of the season, when they were debating his chances of making the All-Star team – not which All-NBA team he’ll land on.
Better than seemingly everyone but Gilgeous-Alexander anticipated, because it turns out he’s been plotting this the whole time, starting as an artistic kid in Toronto, basketball in hand always, loving the game even when it didn’t love him back.
No, he didn’t make his high school team in ninth grade, but resist the urge to ridicule a coach, because that experience proved an important eye-opener for the young player. And if you’ve seen how saucer-wide Gilgeous-Alexander’s eyes can get when he spots an opening on the court, you know there’s no diminishing the dude’s willingness to bite off as much greatness as he can chew.
“I was pissed” about being cut, he told me in 2019, when he’d just begun his NBA career as a self-assured rookie in L.A. with so much drive but no driver’s license. “So I just told myself, ‘I’m gonna make them regret it.’”
If Gilgeous-Alexander now is in make-the-Clippers-regret-it mode, he’s always been too polite to say much about it aloud.
But his actions make a good point, even if he’s not outwardly obsessed with sticking it to the team that traded for him on Draft Night in 2018 only to ship him to OKC a year later. He was, you remember, a key piece of the blockbuster deal that brought aboard Paul George and, with him, free agent Kawhi Leonard.
The deal will go down as an all-time heist if the Clippers aren’t able to win a title in the next couple of seasons, especially because it also included a boatload of draft picks, one of which turned into rookie sensation Jalen Williams.
Oh, and there’s this: The kid the Thunder got in that trade? He didn’t come in looking for help or to help, he came in with the intention of butting in on the conversation about the game’s greats.
It ain’t Shai-on-L.A., it’s Shai vs. Shai.
“Mentally I tell myself every night that I’m the best player on the floor and I want everybody in the arena to know that and feel that,” he said on “Pass the Rock,” the NBA’s app series.
“I wanna be known as one of the best players to play the game. Watching guys like Kobe growing up, I go to school and the debate is, who’s better, Kobe or LeBron? Who’s better, Kobe or Michael? I want those conversations to be about myself.”
And that’s when Gilgeous-Alexander volunteered that in the LeBron vs. Kobe debate, he’s always been a Kobe guy, inspired by Bryant’s desire to “kill you with skill.” Though, yes, the camera caught Gilgeous-Alexander musing, “it is fun beating ’Bron,” before pausing a beat and then finishing his thought: “It’s fun beating everybody though.”
Even with Thursday’s 127-105 loss, he and his mates on the NBA’s youngest team have been beating almost everyone, winning eight of their past 12 games.
Don’t expect a sudden change of pace from the guy who came into the league having mastered it; according to Tankathon.com, the Thunder have the second-easiest schedule remaining among Western Conference teams.
Since Gilgeous-Alexander made his All-Star Game debut last month, he’d willfully improvised his way to 34.4 points per game (shy of only Damian Lillard’s 35.1). And he hasn’t been missing many notes, shooting 53.3% from the field, including 43.8% from 3-point range.
That’s even better than his historically stellar showings in L.A.; he returned this week having averaged 28 points, four rebounds and six assists in six games in the city since being traded.
He’s climbed to eighth on the NBA’s “race-to-the-MVP ladder,” which means he’s currently just five rungs below where George left things in 2018-19, his final season with the Thunder and the best of his career at 28.
And only Michael Jordan has produced a statistical season like the one Gilgeous-Alexander is finishing: averaging at least 31 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal and 1 block for a season. “Sounds pretty good,” he said Thursday.
Me: “Only you & Michael Jordan have ever averaged 31-4-5-1-1. How do that sound to you?”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: “It sounds pretty good. I know he did that & won a lot more games.”
Me: Jordan was 24 his 1st time, too.
SGA: “Makes it a little better.”
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) March 24, 2023
And it appears Gilgeous-Alexander could be available to play both ends of back-to-back contests going forward, something he did not do while he was nursing an abdominal strain earlier. He said he planned to face the Lakers on Friday, so long as he didn’t wake up experiencing discomfort.
As far as callbacks go, that Gilgeous-Alexander is in town for this pivotal week in the Clippers’ season is quite the brutal twist from whoever is contriving the plot. What a wicked flourish to drop unwelcome reminders and fill even the most rational viewers’ heads with what-ifs.
Already on Tuesday, there’d been another whoa-nelly of a dunk followed, minutes later, by another heart-stopping, gut-punch of a knee injury. And that led to another opaque news release calling it a “sprained right knee,” in George’s case, which reminded close viewers of the “right knee sprain,” used initially to describe Kawhi Leonard’s 2021 torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Talk about heightened dramatic effect, having SGA across the way throwing daggers. Having him carve up the Clippers on Tuesday for 20 of his 31 points in the second half, death by Slinky? His go-go-Gadget arms wrapping up the season tiebreaker between his current team and his former team?
And then having him drop 30 points in 27 minutes Thursday?
He rested in the fourth quarter, on the bench while the game got away from Oklahoma City, with another big one around the corner the next night in the same building.
But after one of his 10 buckets Thursday, a woman in the stands said aloud what was on everyone’s minds: “I miss Shai.”
The young man’s become a killer. A killer with skills.
And a most formidable foe on this week’s late-season installment of the NBA in L.A.
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