Not many expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to challenge for a 2023 NBA Play-In tournament spot to begin the year. Those doubters were certainly justified in their low expectations for the Thunder, especially when they were coming off a 24-win campaign and their reward for their putridity, Chet Holmgren, injured his foot before the season began.
Fast forward to April though, and the Thunder have managed to surpass even the most optimistic expectations, finishing with 40 wins and a chance to nab the eighth seed in the Western Conference. This opportunity seems very poetic, as the last true contending iteration of the Thunder (the Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden core) began to climb the NBA ranks as the eighth seed, challenging the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers to a competitive six-game series in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.
While it’s difficult to envision the Thunder’s current core becoming as elite as the aforementioned one, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s greatness notwithstanding, squeaking into the playoffs will do wonders for a franchise that many expected to remain at the bottom for years to come after trading away Paul George and Westbrook in 2019.
Nevertheless, the New Orleans Pelicans will be a tough matchup, especially with how well Brandon Ingram has played as of late. Ingram will be a nightmare to defend given his three-level scoring mastery, but the Thunder should have the personnel to, at the very least, slow down the Pelicans forward who has been breathing fire since February.
Even then, the Pelicans, on paper, have more talent across the roster, so the Thunder will need all hands on deck to pull off a 9/10 upset so they could live to fight another day.
Here’s the Thunder’s biggest X-factor for their 2023 NBA Play-In tournament contest on Wednesday — and it’s not Jalen Williams.
Thunder’s biggest X-factor vs. Pelicans: Luguentz Dort
Jalen Williams has arguably been the Thunder’s biggest X-factor all year long. Drafted as the 12th overall pick of the 2022 NBA Draft, pundits and scouts did not expect a lot of offensive polish coming from the swingman out of Santa Clara. After all, he just made a late rise atop draft boards with an impressive showing at the combine, and in college, he didn’t have the longest track record of efficiency in his three years.
However, Williams has managed to impress in just about every step of the way, and he now stands as the Thunder’s third-best player. There is even an argument to be made for Williams as his team’s second-best player, depending on how well Josh Giddey is playing. Williams has become such an overwhelming athletic force on both ends, shining on offense with his effortless ability to glide past defenders while letting his tools allow him to crowd his matchup’s space on the defensive end.
Thus, Williams has definitely graduated above X-factor status, as the Thunder will count on him to shoulder a heavy two-way load alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey.
This makes Luguentz Dort the most obvious choice as the singular variable that could decide the outcome in either direction.
Almost all fans know Dort’s contributions by now. The 6’3 Thunder wing is as intense of an on-ball defender as they come, as he’s able to shuffle his feet easily while shadowing even the best offensive players. Dort takes on the most difficult matchups every night, and he usually makes their lives a living hell. Just ask Kawhi Leonard how stifling Dort can be.
But Dort just hasn’t been able to up his scoring proficiency and efficiency, and he remains one of the toughest players to watch on the offensive end. If Dort’s outside shot isn’t hitting, he barely contributes anything on that end of the floor, as he isn’t particularly the most adept finisher at the rim.
Dort finished the regular season having shot below the 40 percent mark for the third time in his career (through four seasons). While Dort doesn’t really earn his corn on offense, a bit more efficiency would be nice from someone making $15.3 million this season.
At the very least, Dort is sure to make an impact against Brandon Ingram, although that matchup didn’t exactly work in the Pelicans’ favor in their February 13 matchup, as the Pelicans star led his team to victory with an efficient 34-point performance.
Nonetheless, Dort should have a few open looks during the 2023 NBA Play-In tournament game against the Pelicans, and if he makes them, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and company will have even more space to stretch their opponent’s defense beyond its breaking point.
Dort has popped off in a win or go home contest before, scoring a then-career high 30 points back in 2020. Thus, the Thunder wing certainly has it in him to explode at a crucial juncture, and the OKC brass will be hoping that Dort’s semi-regular scoring outbursts occur in the play-in.
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