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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Clemente Almanza

Player grades: SGA, young Thunder squad pushes experienced Celtics in 126-122 loss

The Oklahoma City Thunder might be good. More importantly, they’re definitely fun!

After coming into Monday night as double-digit underdogs against the league-best record Boston Celtics, the Thunder made it a full four-quarter game.

With the Thunder leading by as many as 15 points, the Celtics needed to outscore the Thunder, 37-26, in the fourth quarter to avoid the upset loss against a young squad whose inexperience was on full display in the final 18 minutes.

In that span, the Thunder scored 39 points on an efficient 15-of-31 (48.4 percent) shooting but committed 12 (!!) turnovers.

For perspective, the Thunder had 19 turnovers in the game, and the Celtics had just four during the final 18 minutes.

The Thunder looked discombobulated at times with the self-inflicted turnovers. It was clear the youngest roster in the league is still learning how to close games in tough road environments. Nonetheless, a bad 18 minutes should not take away from an impressive 30.

The Thunder went into TD Garden expected to lose to arguably the best team in the league and instead took the fight to them.

While it’s a loss, not all losses are equal. In this case, losing against the Celtics is not a loss the Thunder should be down on themselves about. While it might not be clear in the immediate aftermath after blowing a seven-point lead to enter the fourth quarter, they should be proud of their effort in this game.

The Thunder are young and inexperienced. The Celtics are battle-tested and one of the oldest teams in the league. This is how games like these are supposed to play out.

The Thunder, who have been the laughingstock over the last couple of years for egregious tanking, stepped up in the brightest stages in Madison Square Garden and TD Garden on a back-to-back.

After three seasons of being overlooked and circled as an easy win in the opposition’s calendars, performances like these go a long way in changing the Thunder’s reputation around the league.

Considering all five Thunder starters played at least 33 minutes and nobody off the bench played more than 19, let’s take a look at Thunder player grades for the five starters.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: A-plus

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics had star duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown playing heavy minutes in this one. But neither of them was the best player on the floor.

Instead, that honor goes to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 37 points on 13-of-26 shooting and went 9-of-9 from the free-throw line. This was Gilgeous-Alexander’s second consecutive 37-point performance.

Keep in mind he did this despite being hounded all game by several great defensive guards/wings: Brown, Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Al Horford.

On the season, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.5 points on 53.9% shooting, 5.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 13 games.

Aleksej Pokusevski: A-plus

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

After three seasons, Aleksej Pokusevski is no longer a theoretical player.

In his fourth consecutive start, Pokusevski finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. In eight starts this season, Pokusevski is averaging 10 points on 47.8% shooting, 6.3 rebounds and two blocks.

The two starting forward spots have been fluid for Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault all season, but it’s hard not to see Pokusevski eventually locking down one of those spots.

On a side note, Pokusevski suffered a nasty-looking rolled ankle in the third quarter. In clearly visible pain, Pokusevski checked out. Though he returned and toughed out the rest of the game, his ankle injury was clearly slowing him.

Hopefully it’s nothing serious for Pokusevski. It feels like he’s starting to finally build momentum. Having to miss time to rehab an ankle sprain could seriously ruin the rhythm Pokusevski has built.

Jalen Williams: A

Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

In his third start of the season, rookie forward Jalen Williams turned in one of his best performances.

In 36 minutes, Williams finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting and six rebounds. Williams also shot 2-of-5 from three. Nine of those points came in the first quarter as Williams came out with a hot start.

With the Thunder dealing with some injuries, Williams stepped up for them in a game that needed his offense.

Josh Giddey: B

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

In 33 minutes, Josh Giddey finished with 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists. A big knock on Giddey’s performance is the seven turnovers he committed. Four came in the fourth quarter.

When talking about the Thunder not being experienced enough just yet to win games like these, Giddey is the poster child. While he’s been fantastic with the Thunder since being drafted in 2021, it was clear Giddey was rushing in the fourth quarter of a tight game with a loud crowd, leading to sloppy play.

This was a valuable learning experience for Giddey. Experience is the greatest teacher and that’s the case with Giddey’s fourth-quarter mishaps.

Overall, while not as exciting as his performance against the Knicks, Giddey had a decent game against a Celtics team that rosters two great defensive-minded guards, Smart and White.

Lu Dort: B-plus

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

I think Lu Dort found his groove.

Against the Celtics, Dort finished with 21 points on 7-of-18 shooting and 3-of-7 from 3. While it’s not super-efficient scoring, it’s still a massive upgrade over how Dort was shooting the ball earlier in the season.

After shooting 19.3% from three in his first 10 games, a 10-of-22 (45.5 percent) 3-point shooting spree in his last four games has bumped his season average up to 26.6% from deep.


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