Shai Gilgeous-Alexander outduels Luka Dončić in Game 1 a day before MVP announcement

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of three finalists for MVP, might watch the award announcement Wednesday afternoon. He also might skip it.

“Sure,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Why not? If I’m at home. I didn’t know it was tomorrow.”

Gilgeous-Alexander doesn’t burst with enthusiasm in just about any media setting. But his tame approach in this instance is warranted. The Thunder franchise isn’t gearing up for a major press conference. The world already knows which direction the wind is blowing. Nikola Jokic will win his third MVP on Wednesday. Gilgeous-Alexander will finish either second or third, ahead of or behind Luka Dončić.

That’s the dash of drama still to be revealed, magnified by the moment. Gilgeous-Alexander and Dončić are squared up in a playoff series and Gilgeous-Alexander just delivered the first blow, a tranquil 29-point, 9-rebound, 9-assist Game 1 performance in a 117-95 runaway win over Dončić and the Mavericks just hours before it will be revealed which of their regular seasons that voters valued more.

His night started with a score around and then over the top of Dončić. Both came after the Thunder searched out a switch, clearing space for Gilgeous-Alexander after getting Dončić on the island. Here is the layup.

Here is the baseline fadeaway.

Gilgeous-Alexander controlled the first half with his slithering patience and ability to foul hunt when the night’s refereeing trend dictated it. The Game 1 officials, led by crew chief Tony Brothers, called the first half of the series opener tight. There were 21 combined first-half fouls and 35 free throws.

Neither team shot the ball well or looked in much of a rhythm. The flow was choppy. But that’s often when Gilgeous-Alexander — and Dončić — can grab the steering wheel. Gilgeous-Alexander did that significantly better on Tuesday night.

Here’s a late first-quarter possession. It’s 17-17, an early slog. Gilgeous-Alexander has a bit of space in semi-transition against a defense without its center behind the action. So he lefty drives right into P.J. Washington, absorbs the hip-to-hip bump and throws up a fadeaway as Brothers whistles the first foul of the night against Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Thunder missed 11 of their 16 first-half 3s. Jalen Williams, their second-best scorer, missed his first six shots and didn’t score a first-half point. He was 1-of-9 until a fourth-quarter surge.

These are the moments — when Williams struggles, when the outside shots aren’t falling, when the defense is physical and the whistle is tight — Gilgeous-Alexander is at his most valuable. He can turn what is otherwise an inefficient and vulnerable half into a 62-53 lead, carving his way to free points by line-driving into cracks, generating angles, bumping hips and amplifying contact.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 19 first-half points and shot 11 first-half free throws, making nine. Here are three more calls that earned him six of those 11 attempts.

The Mavericks didn’t complain about the officiating publicly postgame. Whistles lessened in the second half. The Mavericks shot 25 free throws for the game. The Thunder shot 28. Gilgeous-Alexander was fouled seven times and took 13 free throws. Dončic, fouled seven times, shot 10.

“The officials did a good job tonight,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I thought they were consistent from end to end. Obviously, we had some touch fouls on Dončić that were all fouls. We gotta be better in those situations. They had similar situations on their end of things. We adapted to how it was being called. I thought they called it straight up.”

The Thunder sprinted away in the third quarter after Daigneault subbed out Josh Giddey and put in Isaiah Joe. Giddey, as expected, was gifted space. He badly missed both of his 3s and the Thunder were a minus-7 in his 17 minutes. After averaging 26.5 minutes (and playing well) in the first round, Giddey’s 17 minutes were the fewest he’s played in a game since December.

The script dictated it. So did Joe, Cason Wallace and Aaron Wiggins, the three bench options to replace Giddey. Upon entry in the third quarter, Joe buried a 3 on his first possession. He made two. So did Wallace, who hounded both Dončić and Kyrie Irving when tasked. Wiggins had the most important performance of his career, scoring 16 points in 23 bench minutes. All three were in the double-digit plus/minus. The Thunder outscored the Mavericks by 29 points with Giddey off the floor.

But it was Gilgeous-Alexander who stabilized them in the first half and Gilgeous-Alexander who capped the third quarter separation run with these two stepback 3s

Gilgeous-Alexander finished with a game-high 29 points. He had two turnovers. He was a plus-21.

On the other side, Dončić and Irving labored through rough nights, turning it over nine times and combining for 39 points on 33 shots. Irving, looking a bit frazzled, had four first-half turnovers. Dončić had five. His 19 points (on 6-of-19 shooting) were his fewest in a game since mid-March.

Dončić did it in 41 minutes, a game-high, despite appearing to be hobbling on that sprained knee. Gilgeous-Alexander also came up limping at one point, suffering some knee-to-knee contact. But he said he was fine postgame and should be fresher after more than a week between series. It looked that way in a Game 1 runaway win.

(Photo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander driving to the basket against Luka Dončić in Game 1: Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)

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