Wiseman scores 20 points as Pistons rally to beat Thunder in Montreal
MONTREAL — It's safe to say Montreal basketball fans have left an impression on the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Canadians Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and hometown favourite Luguentz Dort took the Bell Centre court for the Thunder in a 128-125 pre-season loss to the Detroit Pistons Thursday night as part of the NBA's Canada Series.
The packed house of 21,055 rowdy spectators was convincing enough for Hamiton's Gilgeous-Alexander to call for an NBA team in the city.
"It was almost like it was a real NBA game. Not almost, it definitely felt like it was a real NBA game," he said, donning a Montreal Canadiens jersey. "The NBA should put a team here."
Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault agreed with Gilgeous-Alexander about the atmosphere — but wasn't sure he'd appreciate being a visitor in the building.
"We loved it up here, although we liked when they (were cheering) for us," he said. "I don't know if we want to play a road game here, this will be our secondary deal."
Dort, who grew up in the Montreal-Nord borough and had 150-200 friends and family in the stands, said before the game he couldn't have dreamt of playing an NBA game in his home city because it didn't have a team.
After the game, he was hoping that could one day change.
“Basketball has gotten so big here, and the fact there are so many fans that came out, I hope it happens one day," he said, with a Canadiens and Montreal Alouettes jersey around his neck. "It will definitely be hard to play here because we’ve got good fans here, but I hope it happens.”
Centre James Wiseman led the Pistons with 20 points as Detroit came back from being down 12 in the fourth quarter to win.
Oklahoma City superstar Gilgeous-Alexander had 12 points, two rebounds and three assists, shooting 3-for-4 from the field.
But the night belonged to Dort, who led all scorers with 24 points and received a standing ovation before tip-off when he addressed the crowd.
That might have been the biggest challenge he faced.
"It wasn't easy. I was like repeating stuff in my head, I was practising last night," said Dort. "And when I was about to talk, the crowd kept yelling, I almost shed a tear if I'm being honest, I had to hold myself together."
Once the game started, his teammates fed him the ball like mad.
He scored the Thunder's first five points — with a three and a dunk — in front of the erupting sellout crowd, which included Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis and star Cole Caufield.
"I told them at the beginning too, like 'Yo, I just want the first shot," said Dort. "My teammates kept saying ‘We’re gonna give you the ball, we’re gonna give you the ball’ — I think I took the first five shots of the game."
When the Pistons were mounting their comeback, Dort, who came out of the game in the third quarter, couldn't help but look down the bench.
"I was ready, I was looking at the coach the whole time like, ‘Coach, I’m here if you need me,'" he said.
GROWING THE GAME
Gilgeous-Alexander wanted to become an NBA star when he was young. Now he wants to do the inspiring and continue to grow the sport of basketball in Canada.
He and Dort played key roles in the national team’s bronze-medal win at the FIBA World Cup in September and helped Canada secure a spot in the Paris Olympics next summer.
Gilgeous-Alexander believes that was an important step for the sport in Canada, and inspiring more kids to pick up a ball and dribble is how they’ll carry the momentum.
"I think Canada Basketball is headed in the right direction, and it starts with the youth,” he said earlier Thursday. “Myself, Lu, all the guys on the team, we were kids dreaming and believing at one point, and as long as you do that you have a shot."
The impact he could have by competing in Montreal wasn’t lost on him.
“It’s super important, just for people to see the game up close, for kids to see that the NBA is not, I mean it's far away and hard to get to, but it's not out of your dreams and out of your reach if you try," he said.
Gilgeous-Alexander, 25, enters his sixth NBA campaign after blossoming into a superstar last season by averaging 31.4 points and 5.5 assists, and earning first-team all-NBA honours.
While playing for Canada, he led the team with 24.5 points per game and 6.4 assists during the World Cup, including a 31-point, 12-assist performance in the bronze-medal game against the United States. His star turn helped Canada secure its first Olympic qualification since 2000.
Dort, 24, contributed 8.2 points per game in the tournament while defending opposing teams’ best players, a role he also plays for the Thunder.
Daigneault said it was special to watch Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort at the centre of Canada’s success.
“That was a historic team this year,” he said. “Canada Basketball’s been emerging for probably the last 20 years, but it certainly seems to be coming together at a nice time, and the fact that we have two players that are in the thick of that is something that we’re incredibly grateful for.
“It was really, really cool to see them accomplish what they accomplished.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.