Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots over Dallas...

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots over Dallas Mavericks' Derrick Jones Jr. (55) in the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Dallas. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder might just be scratching the surface of their potential.

Oklahoma City’s season ended Saturday night with a loss to Dallas in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. But the fact that the Thunder even got that far should concern the rest of the league. After missing the playoffs last year, they became the youngest team in NBA history to clinch a No. 1 seed and the youngest to win a playoff series this season.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was an MVP finalist and proved himself worthy by averaging 30 points per game in the playoffs. Chet Holmgren was runner-up for rookie of the year and established himself as one of the league’s top shot blockers. Jalen Williams, runner-up for rookie of the year last season, was the steady No. 2 scorer this season. Lu Dort was one of the league’s top perimeter defenders.

That core, with no starters older than 25, was among the key reasons Mark Daigneault was named NBA Coach of the Year, and why he’s looking forward to the future.

“This is a young team that is evolving, and we have runway because of the age of the team and the experience level of the team,” Daigneault said. “A lot of people talked about our experience in a negative fashion this year, like, ‘You guys don’t have experience.’ But part of that is it gives you an incredible runway moving forward, and it gives us a lot of optimism as we continue to go.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a superstar the past two years. Last season, he was a first-team All-NBA selection. This season, he was an All-Star again and ranked third in the NBA in scoring. He also finished second in the league in steals and seventh in the balloting for defensive player of the year.

Daigneault said Gilgeous-Alexander improved on little things this season.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is fouled drivig to...

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is fouled drivig to the basket by Dallas Mavericks' Derrick Jones Jr., rear, in the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Dallas. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

“I think it’s easy to get awestruck by his talent and what he’s accomplishing and how efficiently he does it and the place that he’s carved out in the league,” Daigneault said. “But the secret behind that is very consistent work, very targeted work, and incremental improvement.”

Holmgren was the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft, but the 7-foot-1 forward missed last season with a foot injury. He came back and played every game this season, creating problems on both ends of the floor with his versatility. He was the missing piece for a defense that lacked a rim protector last season.

“Right now this is, in my opinion, the lowest level of Chet Holmgren we’re going to see, which is pretty exciting,” Daigneault said. “And the reason I’m so confident saying that is because of his appetite for improvement. He’s a guy that is incredibly focused. Basketball is his number one priority. He sleeps in his sneakers. He will have a great summer physically and skill-wise.”

The Thunder also got significant contributions from Josh Giddey, Isaiah Joe, Aaron Wiggins, Jaylin Williams and rookie Cason Wallace. Wiggins, 25, is the oldest player in that group.

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) is fouled on...

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) is fouled on a drive to the basket by Dallas Mavericks' P.J. Washington, rear, as Derrick Jones Jr., left, ad Kyrie Irving (11) help defend on the play in the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Dallas. Credit: AP/Tony Gutierrez

Beyond the talent, the Thunder had excellent chemistry on and off the court. The players often would bark and joke around during each other’s postgame interviews.

“I think above all it was just very fun,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think that’s where it all starts. Like every day you come to work where it doesn’t feel like work. You come to work, and you try to excel individually and as a group. When you have so much fun, it makes everything else easier. It kind of clouds all the bad stuff because you’re having so much fun.”

Oklahoma City's confidence started to build as the wins piled up.

“We proved in the regular season with the season we had that there’s no one we couldn’t beat, literally,” Daigneault said. “It’s just never my mentality to look left and right. Looking right in front of me, we had everything we needed. We had a special group of guys. Part of what made them special is how they operated collectively.”

Gilgeous-Alexander believes the series loss to Dallas will accelerate the team's growth process.

“I think this is a bump in the road,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We learn from it. We get better. And hopefully get to our goal in the end.”

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