There were Thunder jerseys with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s name amid the crowd at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday night. Luguentz Dort could hear fans yelling his name.
Scotiabank Arena might be Raptors country, but the pair of Canadians on the Oklahoma City Thunder love playing in Toronto, where the basketball dreams of so many Canadian players first sprouted.
And it showed — the two led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a nail-biting 110-109 victory over the Raptors.
“It’s an exciting feeling,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Knowing all my family and friends are in the stands. It’s a court that I grew up watching. [The atmosphere] was electric. Every time I’ve been here it has been and it’s very fun to play here for sure.”
“It’s no different for Lu Dort, even though he grew up in Montreal.”
WATCH | Canadian duo leads Thunder to win over Raptors:
Gilgeous-Alexander, from Hamilton, and Montreal’s Dort, combined for 48 points against Toronto. Gilgeous-Alexander’s brilliant passing, particularly on OKC’s final basket, and Dort’s smothering defence were key reasons for the Thunder’s victory.
Dort echoed his Canadian teammate. The trip to Toronto was a game they’d both been looking forward to.
Gilgeous-Alexander fuelled a 25-3 Thunder run in a pivotal third quarter, but it was his heads-up play with nine seconds left that clinched the victory. The 23-year-old drew four Raptors defenders then kicked it out to an open Mike Muscala for a three-pointer.
“I noticed [Toronto] went to a box-and-one,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the Raptors’ defensive scheme. “So I knew that once I got by my guy, I knew there’s gonna be four guys waiting on me. And I just wanted to try to draw as many guys I could in, pump fake as soon as I saw Mike open I know what I had to do.”
‘A lot of pride in where they’re from’
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault had hoped for a big game for his two Canadian players, saying they “have a lot of pride in where they’re from.”
He had kind words about the type of leader Gilgeous-Alexander is growing into.
“He’s got a great blend of ironclad self-confidence,” the coach said. “He’s incredibly confident in his own skin and as a person, he’s not looking left and right for how to act or how to think, he’s his own man. But he also balances that with great humility.
“The energy that he brings to any interaction, or to a room, is incredibly authentic, there’s a ton of integrity to it. He’s just a rock-solid person.”
Dort’s linebacker build coupled with fleet feet, meanwhile, have made him one of the fiercest defenders in the league. He kept Fred VanVleet under wraps most of Wednesday night.
But he’s also developing into a serious offensive threat.
“Defensively, he’s a luxury for us,” Daigneault said. “There’s a lot of perimeter players in the league that can keep you up at night and we’ve got a guy that’s an elite matchup against those guys.
Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort are close friends. A charming photo last March showed Gilgeous-Alexander, who’s afraid of needles, getting his COVID-19 vaccine while he clutched Dort’s hand.
“Obviously, we connect on a lot: Both from Canada, love hoops,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Me and Lu are super tight. We knew each other before the NBA and then happened to be on the same team. Lu is my brother, we’re super close on and off the court. And it shows up every night.”
There were five Canadians spread across the two rosters Wednesday, a stat that is starting to feel almost commonplace as more and more Canadians thrive in the sport. There were a record 18 Canadians on NBA rosters on opening night this season.
A week earlier, it had been Dillon Brooks and the Memphis Grizzlies throttling the Raptors 98-91. Brooks, from Mississauga, Ont., hollered “This is my house!” to the Scotiabank crowd after knocking down a three-pointer.
“This game was circled, for sure,” Brooks said afterward. “I love playing here. It’s been a dream. It’s been circled for a while.”
The Raptors host another Canadian in RJ Barrett when the New York Knicks come to town on Friday.
Toronto’s Canadians are Chris Boucher, Khem Birch and rookie Dalano Banton, who became the first Torontonian drafted by the Raptors.