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Why Thunder should be Canada’s team while Raptors rebuild

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TORONTO — Behold Canada’s team.

No, not the Toronto Raptors. Not for now.

The other one. The one that plays about 1,800 km. south of Winkler, Man. Yup, that one. My argument for the Oklahoma City Thunder as Canada’s new team:

They are poised for a long run as championship contenders led by Canadian national team stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Hamilton and Lu Dort of Montreal.

As a bonus they also rely on Chet Holmgren, the talented beanpole rookie from Minnesota, which is basically Canada (and much closer to Winkler), and Jalen Williams, the do-everything second-year wing who played at Santa Clara, the alma mater of Canadian hoops icon Steve Nash.

Their head coach, Mark Daigneault, has a last name that would fit in perfectly if he found himself watching Junior C hockey in Franco-Ontario, or salmon fishing in New Brunswick, even if he has yet to lean into the proper French pronunciation. And he’s very nice.

The arguments against?

None, really.

The Raptors have had a great run and hopefully will become relevant again in the not-so-distant future. But for now, they can step aside for a minute while they figure out how or when they’re going to put an NBA team on the court again. It’s not likely this season — against the Western Conference-leading Thunder, the Raptors were missing their five leading scorers and their top reserve in the form of Scottie Barnes (hand), Jakob Poeltl (hand), RJ Barrett (personal reasons), Immanuel Quickley (personal reasons), Gary Trent Jr. (back) and Chris Boucher (knee). They were also without two-way player DJ Carton. No one’s return is considered imminent, which doesn’t bode well for the Raptors game against the Washington Wizards Saturday.

To their credit, Toronto competed through all four quarters against a Thunder team who were 15.5-point favourites before the game started. According to my colleague Blake Murphy, that’s the most an opponent has been favoured against the Raptors at home in franchise history.

The Thunder covered, even though they had to work into the fourth quarter to make sure as they left town with a 123-103 win — their fourth straight as they improved to 49-20 and maintained their slim hold on top spot in the West.

The Raptors were shorthanded but feisty. They led 35-28 after the first quarter and trailed by six with 9:15 to play before the Thunder put them way. It was a relatively ordinary night for the Canadians. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 23 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, three steals, and an uncharacteristic six turnovers. Dort had 10 points, three rebounds and two assists.

The bright spots for the Raptors — who lost for the ninth straight time and the 11th in their past 12 to fall to 23-47 on the season — were rookie Gradey Dick, who had 21 points and five rebounds, and little-used veteran Garrett Temple, who had eight points and was a team-best plus-10 in his 18 minutes. Canadian veteran Kelly Olynyk had 16 points, five rebounds, and six assists in the presence of his Olympic teammates, Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort.

But that’s all the Raptors can offer right now: A few shimmery objects in the mud of a lost season.

So as Toronto nurses their wounds and hopes their tour through the rebuilding process will be mercifully short and fruitful, Canadian basketball fans would be wise to shift their gaze to the Midwest for some inspiration as the playoffs approach, not only this year but in the years to come.

Gilgeous-Alexander, who might win the MVP award this season, is just 25. Dort, their defensive stopper who has turned himself into a 41 per cent three-point shooter this season, is 24. Williams is 22 and Holmgren is 21.

You may have heard that over the course of their rebuilding effort, the Thunder accumulated some draft capital. Yeah, you heard right. Between their own picks and the picks they’ve added via trade, OKC will have at least nine first-round picks and 21 second-round picks over the next seven drafts. Depending on how the protections work out on other draft picks they have rights to, those numbers could balloon to a total of 37 picks.

The point is, not only do the Thunder have an incredible base of young talent, but they have the resources to add to that base through the draft or — as most expect — through some targeted trades.

The rebuilding Raptors should take note: That’s how it’s done.

But perhaps the best reason for Canadian hoops fans to get on the OKC bandwagon — at least until the Raptors get theirs in working order — is that they seem like a team worthy of support.

Consider Gilgeous-Alexander. He’s young, wealthy, and gifted, not always a formula for being the most relatable guy. Except that’s exactly how he comes across, in between dropping 30-point games multiple times a week, week after week, like some kind of bucket-getting metronome.

“Yeah, he’s incredibly consistent in his day-to-day. He’s incredibly consistent in the ups and downs of a game and of a season, which your ability to emotionally regulate is critical in an NBA game even … and he does a great job of staying steady, staying present,” Daigneault says. “And I think it’s had a contagious effect on the team for sure. And so he’s done all that, he also hasn’t lost his way in terms of being a part of the team. He’s one of the guys too. So he’s not just this like, great player that operates on his own level. You know, he’s very plugged into the team, and therefore he has a ton of influence as well.”

The why isn’t complicated, from Gilgeous-Alexander’s point of view. Treat people how you would like them to treat you.

“I just always, like, just going through my life, through friendships, through relationships, it’s always easier to trust someone when they’re humble and you know they have your best interest [in mind],” he says. “That’s what I try to do. I try not to act like I’m above or below anybody. And I try to generally have the guy’s best interest and in turn they trust me, and I trust them in our relationship on and off the court.”

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And then there’s Dort. While Gilgeous-Alexander has been stamped for stardom since his rookie season, the burly Montrealer had to make his way into the league the hard way after going undrafted after one season at Arizona State.

Though Dort had been a prolific scorer before turning pro, the Thunder saw him as someone who could help them as a perimeter stopper if he could develop his shooting.

Dort bought in and quickly became part of the Thunder’s fabric.

“We have a lot of leaders and they all do it within their personality,” says Daigneault. “[Dort] is not a speech guy by any stretch, you know, in fact, if we made him do that, he’d be mortified. But he leads by how he competes. And he’s always done that.”

“I’ve always said even before this season when we’ve had some success, that he helps us stick our chest out,” Daigneault continues. “We’ve had a young team, but we’ve always had this, like, fearless spirit to us and it starts with him. [Dort] has just leaned into every single competitive experience. He’s not afraid of any situation. He’s not afraid of any matchup and that has a contagious effect. I think, you know, as we’ve built this thing, a lot of our poise has come from Shai, a lot of our physicality and toughness has come from Lu.”

Dort shrugs his massive shoulder as if to say, what other choice would I make?

“It’s just the way that I got in the league,” he says. “I was an undrafted guy. I had to find one thing that I could do to stay on the court and prove to people that I deserved to be in this league and that was defence. Since then I’ve learned that I gotta learn a role to be able to get minutes and that worked for me my first year. I felt like I always had to adjust over the next couple of seasons but every time I just gotta adjust and see what kind of team we have and what I can do to help the team win.”

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It’s been working. And if a Canadian basketball fan had one more reason to shift allegiances, for the short-term at least, consider how Dort says that his success with the national team this past summer and the experience of bringing home bronze from the FIBA World Cup influenced him heading into this season with the Thunder — especially as the playoffs approach.

“I kind of [said] before this season that the feeling of going into a game that is win or go home, that’s the feeling I had with Team Canada this past summer where you don’t know what’s going to happen and you got to win this game to move forward,” says Dort. ”That’s kind of the approach I had coming into this season. And [with] the playoffs coming in now, it’s going to be crazy. We still got to finish the season, run to the finish line first. But I’m really excited.”

Canadian basketball fans should be too.

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