Thunder oust Pelicans in play-in, to face Wolves for 8-seed

NEW ORLEANS -- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had been here before.

The Oklahoma City Thunder guard had been in big situations and the playoffs before and had a poise about him Wednesday night when his team traveled to New Orleans as the No. 10 seed to take on the Pelicans.

"When your leader is not flustered and under control out there, it's a spiral effect," Thunder guard Josh Giddey said. "Guys see that and feed off it."

After one of his worst first halves of the season statistically, Gilgeous-Alexander had 25 second-half points and led the Thunder to a 123-118 victory to allow Oklahoma City to play for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

The Thunder will travel to face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. The winner will meet the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets in the first round beginning Sunday.

Giddey had 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds while Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 32 points.

The Pelicans did their best to deny Gilgeous-Alexander the ball in the first half and sent double-teams his way constantly, limiting him to a season-low seven first-half points. It was only the fifth time Gilgeous-Alexander was limited to single digits in a first half all season.

"It would have been easy for him to come out of halftime pressing, trying to get his game going, but he let it come to him naturally," Giddey said. "He finished with [32] after a tough first half. That just speaks to how good of a player he is."

Gilgeous-Alexander said he knew how the Pelicans were going to defend him and that the team worked on that coming into the game.

"I think you guys could tell we were ready to play out the double-teams and try to make them pay every time," he said.

Gilgeous-Alexander has played in 13 career playoff games, including a seven-game series in the bubble with the Thunder in 2020. After that season, the team shifted into a rebuild, trading away Chris Paul to the Phoenix Suns.

Oklahoma City went 22-50 in 2020-21 and then 24-58 last season. Many expected the Thunder to be near the bottom of the standings again, especially when No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren was ruled out for the season because of a Lisfranc injury in his right foot.

Instead, Gilgeous-Alexander was key to lifting his team to a 40-42 record and the No. 10 seed in the play-in tournament. Giddey said Gilgeous-Alexander's example and poise in the first half, when the Thunder fell behind by nine in the first quarter, helped lead the way the rest of the night.

Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said that sometimes players who are as good as Gilgeous-Alexander try to force things and get "hasty" early in the game in must-win situations.

"He's always been like this," Daigneault said. "His poise in those situations to just let the game unfold, let the game come to him, and his awareness to try and activate his teammates, like he knows. He's been there. He knows the environment. But some of these guys haven't. Early in the game, he's really trying to ignite those guys. Then down the stretch when we need to make plays and they are taking the ball out his hands, those guys were ready to make plays."

Gilgeous-Alexander took over in the third quarter, scoring 17 points while Giddey had 12 as the duo combined to outscore the Pelicans by themselves 29-24.

In the fourth quarter, the lead changed hands six times and the score was tied five times, but it was Gilgeous-Alexander's driving layup with 28.3 seconds to go that gave the Thunder the lead for good.

"I try to lead by example for sure," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "I have played in some playoff series before. I got a little bit more experience than the rest of the guys on the team. I just wanted to come in here and show them that, no matter what, it's still basketball at the end of the day. You still gotta do certain things to win the game throughout. They picked up on it really good to me."