NEW ORLEANS – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander exercised patience during his lowest-scoring first half all season, routinely deferring to teammates such as Lu Dort and Josh Giddey in an effort to keep New Orleans defenders off balance in a winner-take-all postseason game.
“To start the game, I wasn’t expecting a huge outburst offensively,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I wanted to kind of set the table to make sure my teammates were ready to go, confident and attacking. And I knew once I did that, the defense would have to worry about them as well and my offensive game would open up.”
Gilgeous-Alexander scored 25 of his 32 points after halftime, including a go-ahead baseline jumper and four clutch free throws in the final 29 seconds, and Oklahoma City beat the Pelicans 123-118 on Wednesday night to remain alive in the Western Conference play-in tournament.
The Thunder All-Star’s repertoire included spinning dribble drives, varying mid-range jumpers, and a 3-pointer as he once again shot 50% (11 of 22) to match his season average.
Giddey had 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds for Oklahoma City (41-42), the only Western Conference team still playing with a losing record.
“We did a great job of not getting rattled” after Brandon Ingram's putback dunk gave the Pelicans a 110-108 lead, Giddey said. “Nothing ever phased us. It’s such a young group, but it’s such a composed team and that's how you have to be down the stretch of tight games like that.”
The loss eliminated the ninth-seeded Pelicans, while 10th seed Oklahoma City advanced to play at Minnesota on Friday night for the right to enter the NBA playoffs as an eighth seed and meet No. 1 Denver.
Ingram scored 20 of his 30 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left to give the Pelicans a slim chance to come back.
But after Gilgeous-Alexander hit two free throws to put the Thunder up by three, Herbert Jones threw away an inbound pass, sealing New Orleans' fate.
Dort scored 27, hitting four 3s and finishing with two free throws in the final seconds.
Jonas Valanciunas had 16 points and 18 rebounds for New Orleans, but checked out with 4:26 left after apparently hurting his right foot. He returned only briefly in the final minute.
Trey Murphy III scored 21 points, Jones had 20 and CJ McCollum 14 for the Pelicans, who a season ago went 2-0 in play-in games as a ninth seed to advance to the first round of the playoffs.
This time, New Orleans, which was at the top of the Western Conference standings in December, was left to wonder what might have been had All-Star forward Zion Williamson not strained his hamstring on Jan. 2 — an injury that wound up sidelined him the rest of the season.
“It’s important to have your guys on the floor," coach Willie Green said. "It helps your team reach its potential. We didn’t do that this season.”
Gilgeous-Alexander scored 17 in the third quarter and Giddey added 12, including his third 3 of the game to give Oklahoma City a 95-85 lead.
“The third quarter, I thought we got a bit casual in our approach,” Green said. "They just made more plays than us.”
New Orleans went back in front when Josh Richardson’s steal and breakaway dunk made it 101-100 in the fourth quarter.
But as the Thunder came back up the court, Richardson knocking Giddey to the floor near midcourt. Giddey angrily came to his feet and strode toward Richardson and teammates held both back while officials called for a video review and determined that Richardson had committed a flagrant foul.
Giddey made one of two free throws to tie it and set the stage for an intense finish.
Dort, who averaged 13.7 points during the regular season, scored 14 in the first quarter. But a pair of 3s by Murphy helped New Orleans take a 63-57 halftime lead.
Ingram appeared to turn his left ankle late in the second quarter. He did not check out of the game, however, and played most of the second half.
Thunder: Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 10 or more points in a third quarter 40 times this season. ... Oklahoma City outscored New Orleans 21-11 in points off turnovers. The Pelicans committed 11 turnovers, the Thunder seven.
Pelicans: Played without prominent frontcourt reserve Larry Nance Jr., who had been questionable since injuring his left ankle on Sunday in a loss at Minnesota to close the regular season. ... Outrebounded the Thunder 48-38. ... Williamson, who missed his 46th straight game as he continues his recovery from a Jan. 2 right hamstring injury, took part in warmups and finished up with a windmill dunk.
McCollum said he needed surgery three months ago on his right thumb.
“I delayed it to try and help our team get to the playoffs and we came up short,” McCollum said, adding that he also hurt his shoulder recently and expects to have that examined as soon as Monday. "I was doing what I could to try and help out the team.”
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