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OKC Thunder enters offseason driven to 'avoid this feeling again' after NBA playoff exit

DALLAS — Twenty seconds earlier, the Thunder appeared to be framing a revelatory moment. A stamp for the future instead of an early demise. It was fighting to extend its season, it was flushed with mindfulness, too concerned with what could unfold, and yet it seemed as though the play — the one that didn’t decide the game — was bound to be the cover of OKC’s prologue.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the lane. Chet Holmgren in the air. The star point guard trending toward claustrophobia as four defenders closed in, the promising center extending his crow bar of an arm to flush the incoming lob for a lead.

Everything that led to that point felt appropriately punctuated. Fifty-seven wins. The youngest team to do virtually everything. A refreshing offense, a poised defense. A season of unlikely outcomes for one of the most unlikely No. 1 seeds ever. It fought to even be positioned for a possible Game 7. The lob was the window into possibility.

Then its season ended on the unlikeliest of all outcomes: Three free throws.

The Thunder’s run ended in a 117-116 loss to the Mavericks on Saturday, ending the Western Conference semifinals in six games. P.J. Washington decided that.

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Oklahoma City, forced to defend its one-point lead against Luka Doncic with time winding down, saw Doncic back his way down to the block. Lu Dort and SGA each collapsed, leaving the series’ first villain, Washington, in his favorite spot — the corner.

By human nature, Gilgeous-Alexander lunged toward him. Washington timed his jumper  to align with the body flying toward him. SGA first heard the ball. Then he heard the whistle. Washington would, again, be Dallas’ hero. Gilgeous-Alexander’s magical playoff stint turned sour.

“I can’t look at it,” Gilgeous-Alexander said of the replay. “I don’t want to look at it.

“It sucks. You wish you could take the moment back, but it’s not the way life works.”

Afterward, Gilgeous-Alexander took ownership of the sequence. He went on about how he shouldn’t have fouled, how bitter it was that the season technically ended by his hand.

The foul will remain with those who watched. But Saturday’s game was much more.

The spicy words from Doncic to Dort. The rare theatrics from a seemingly relaxed Gilgeous-Alexander. The boiling feud between Luka Doncic and official Tony Brothers. The runs.

A 14-3 Dallas stint midway through the second quarter. The 24-6 OKC run to end the half. Back and forth, a tug of war. The Mavericks inching toward the West finals, the Thunder inching toward survival.

In the end, OKC’s ending came the same way it’d been forecasted all series.

Despite looking closer to the offense vision coach Mark Daigneault hoped for and even thought he saw some in Game 5 —  OKC shot 36.6% from 3 and scored a series high in points — Gilgeous-Alexander remained burdened by a Herculean load. He tallied a series-high 36 points.

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Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks hugs Luguentz Dort #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas.
Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks hugs Luguentz Dort #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas.

OKC’s defense lacked the low-man effort it saw in Game 1. Jaylin Williams helplessly watched as the Mavericks force fed the ball to the middle of the floor over and over. Alley-oops, flat-footed dunks, consistent displays of power. Everything was available. And Williams, a team low minus-14, was thrust into the action.

Every minute Holmgren spent off the floor, plagued by foul trouble or the course of the game, was a minute OKC’s defense gasped for air. He was a plus-8. He was the only solution for rookie Dereck Lively II’s air miles. And despite not quite being what Lively was above the rim for Dallas, he finished with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting and his own series of alley-oops.

Elsewhere, rebounds drug down the Thunder one last time, with Dallas winning the count 47-31. Those rebounds magnetically found the hands of Dallas’ role players, who sniped OKC all series.

Still, with SGA’s shotmaking, with Jalen Williams’ best game of the series (22 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), with Holmgren’s timeliness — OKC had a chance. The way it did in most games this season.

Gilgeous-Alexander’s connection with Holmgren and the moments leading to OKC’s close felt like what viewers would remember. Now the Thunder will only remember the feeling it felt next.

“It’s hard to tell what you remember more, the wins or the losses, but this definitely stings,” Holmgren said. “It doesn’t feel great. Nobody wins 12 straight championships, so the chances I’m gonna feel this at some point again is definitely there.

“But I’m gonna do everything in my power to avoid this feeling again.”

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Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives to the basket as Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) and Dallas Mavericks forward P.J. Washington (25) defend during the second quarter in game six of the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs at American Airlines Center.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives to the basket as Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) and Dallas Mavericks forward P.J. Washington (25) defend during the second quarter in game six of the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs at American Airlines Center.

Playoff Shai is real

Gilgeous-Alexander laid it all out. The stubborn shotmaking, the unfathomable footwork.On Saturday, on the brink of the Thunder’s season, he caught himself smiling and being animated in between plays that cemented his own run.

“Obviously, he’s a big time player that hasn’t gotten to prove that on this stage yet,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. "And I thought that was loud and clear over the course of these playoffs."

Perhaps the Thunder’s shortcomings will suggest that the youngest No. 1 seed ever just wasn’t ripe enough for the moment. But history will show that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was ready.

In his first postseason as a first option, Gilgeous-Alexander carried the weight of a franchise. When his young co-stars, Williams and Holmgren, were limited offensively for the bulk of the West semifinals, SGA never changed. Gilgeous-Alexander told the world his life was consistent back during the regular season.

Life goes on for SGA in May.

He finished Saturday with 36 points, eight assists, two blocks, and made 14 of his 25 shots. For the series, he averaged 32.2 points, 8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.2 steals. He shot 51% from the field, 55% from 3, and 83% from the free throw line.

For a chunk of the time, especially during the tail end of the series, he was the offense. He was OKC’s hope. Ironically, the play that ended the team’s season fell on him.

But through a sea of defenders, through the most congested paint Gilgeous-Alexander has ever had to be artful in, the franchise star continued to deliver colorful midrange shots.

Playoff Shai was real. He just looked awfully similar to the version that built a regular season MVP case.

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Dallas role players continued to shine

The transfer of power from Washington to Derrick Jones Jr. might’ve been telekinetic. It seemed seamless, the passing of a baton for who would kill the Thunder on open 3s.

First it was Washington, nearing 30 points on two separate occasions to open the series. Then it was Jones, averaging 18 points on 66.7% shooting in Games 3 and 4. On Saturday, he went 8 for 13 for a series-high 22 points.

The Thunder begged rangy wings like Washington and Jones to beat it. Anyone but a couple of closers like Doncic and Kyrie Irving. It ended with trial and error.

“That’s why they’re here,” Daigneault said. “We have respect for those players. We just thought, in the series, forcing Doncic and Irving into crowds and forcing other guys to have to make plays was the best course.”

Aside from Dallas’ wings, Lively excelled in his role. He soared through the air, he led a one-man rim unit. He led the Mavericks in plus-minus all series, and Saturday’s swing was the scariest. Daniel Gafford, Dallas’ starting center, was a minus-25. Lively was a plus-26.

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Thunder vs Mavericks playoff series schedule

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC Thunder eye future after NBA playoff exit at hands of Mavericks