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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander And The Thunder Passed Their First Real Test

DALLAS, TX - MAY 13: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands for the National Anthem before the game against the Dallas Mavericks during Round 2 Game 4 of the 2024 NBA Playoffs on May 13, 2024 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)
Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

A theory: The basketball in a Game 4 tends to be the best in a seven-game playoff series.

The first three games establish the dynamic of a series, with each team coming in prepped for the other's tendencies, only for one to be forced to learn where they fell short. Someone will have a great performance or two, something surprising might happen, and unless things go wonky and one team gets up 3-0 and allows you to ignore Game 4 altogether, the team down 2-1 heading into Game 4 will face immense pressure to keep from going into a Warriorsy hole. Each team has punched and counterpunched, and the onus is now on the trailing team to put all their cards on the table and truly go for it.

Game 4 is the swing game. Go down 3-1 and you are basically cooked; tie it up and you've given a respectable showing no matter what happens afterward. The stakes are higher in the subsequent games, but the players are often exhausted and the dynamic is often calcified. The drama is at its best when the higher-seeded team is trailing and has to win one on the road to wrest back home court advantage. This is the cauldron that produced Steph Curry's masterclass in the 2022 Finals, Denver's defiant win on Sunday, and, on Monday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder's gut-check win in Dallas, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's rugged, honest 34-point showing.

The Thunder spent most of Game 4 bottled up, as the Mavericks established themselves as the more physical team and forced a slower, grinding pace that prevented OKC from ever getting their turnover machine whirling into action. The worry with the Thunder all season was that they would run up against a larger, meaner team than them in the playoffs, get pounded on the boards, be denied their steady supply of pressure turnovers, and eventually die. This is sort of what happened in Games 2 and 3, as the Mavericks grabbed 27 offensive rebounds in their two wins. Dallas also ratcheted up the defensive intensity and denied operating space to the Thunder's supporting cast. OKC hit 16 threes in Game 1, then just 28 over the next three games combined. The Thunder threw the first punch, and it was brutally and effectively countered.

OKC led the NBA in three-point percentage this season and did so without any really great movement shooters on the team. It's much harder to drive or kick against a defense that spends the entire game playing a huge, rim-protecting center, as the presence of either Daniel Gafford or Dereck Lively II deputizes the perimeter corps to get way more aggressive on closeouts. If the Thunder ever use any of their non-shooters, like Josh Giddey, they concede to playing on the Mavs' spatial terms.

For the first 80 percent of Game 4, the Mavs won the cat-and-mouse game, planting their centers in the paint on defense then using them as battering rams on offense. P.J. Washington has been cooking, mostly via standing in the corner or lifting to the wing and hitting open threes generated by Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Those two are incredible lob-throwers, and the Mavs use the lob as a weapon to punish Thunder defenders for overhelping on the perimeter. The counterpunch that wobbled OKC in Games 2 and 3 was the Mavs' supporting cast going nuts while OKC quaked in fear of the superstar duo.

OKC had to struggle for a long time before finding the counter-counterpunch in Game 4. Gafford, Lively, and Derrick Jones Jr. combined for 11 blocks as the Thunder kept pounding their heads against the staunch defensive phalanx. Doncic looked all fucked up and hurt, and Irving was not looking at the basket, but it didn't matter as long as the rest of the team was scoring. The Thunder trailed for 42 minutes, by as many as 14 in the third quarter, but they turned the game with a truly impressive comeback and won, 100-96.

Isaiah Joe started the third quarter in Giddey's place, and though he didn't score, the Mavericks were forced to respect his shooting, so he made space for others. Into that space slithered Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 22 of his 34 in the second half in a display of mid-range genius that would send any '90s hoops head into a blissful reverie. Denied access to the rim, SGA got to work on Jones Jr., punished the Mavs for playing any suspect defenders like Tim Hardaway Jr. by putting them in the action, and bravely made use of the only space the Mavs would give him by nailing tough bucket after tough bucket. None of his 14 makes came in the restricted area. Deep in the third, down just two after he'd cooked Irving and then Washington, SGA was pinned to the baseline by Hardaway, only to smoothly rise and nail one up and over the corner of the backboard.

That shot gave SGA his eighth straight point and capped off a solo 6-0 run to give the Thunder their first tie since 4-4. From that point on, OKC ran through the finish line as the Mavs started collapsing more, allowing Holmgren and Dort to hit huge threes. It was heroic shit from SGA—the sort of superstar performance he'd put on all regular season in a moment when his team could only have won if he went off. The Mavs helped the Thunder along by totally botching the fourth quarter, and though their 12-for-23 night at the free throw line had nothing to do with OKC's pressure, closing with Cason Wallace in the mystery spot did. The four real starters all played 40-plus minutes, and it was the rookie defender who filled in the fifth spot and held his own in critical moments.

It is very impressive for the young Thunder to win that game, under that pressure, on the road. Game 4 was their first real test and they aced it. You'd expect a one seed to have this sort of performance in them, though many were skeptical that such a young, untested one seed could do this against a top-three player in the NBA. There's more the Thunder can do (Holmgren getting aggressive to punish spacing, stop playing Josh Giddey) and there's more the Mavs can do (Luka black magic game when?). But this series has been so fun that no matter what, I just want three more games.

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