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How An Undrafted Rookie Stopped James Harden In The Playoffs

After playing the game of his life, Luguentz Dort slumped in his chair. His eyes slightly reddened, he did his best to answer questions, occasionally wiping tears from his face, as his accomplishments and emotions were overwhelmed by a settling reality.

“I mean, we lost,” Dort told FiveThirtyEight weeks after that September night. “I had a good game. But, we lost.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder guard scored 30 points in Game 7 of his team’s Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Houston Rockets, setting the record for most points scored by a player 21 years old or younger in the winner-take-all game. Only two other players in league history have ever scored 25 or more points in a Game 7 at that age or younger: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.


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Dort also holds the record for most points scored in a Game 7 by an undrafted rookie. (Only two drafted rookies, Tom Heinsohn and Tom Meschery, have scored more, and that was back in 1957 and 1962, respectively.) It was a far cry from his first four games of the series,1 when he averaged 8 points, including a Game 5 in which he shot less than 20 percent from the field for a plus/minus of -24.

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His work in Game 7 eclipsed his Game 6 efforts, then a career-playoff high: 13 points on 56 percent field-goal shooting.

Lu came alive in Game 7 of the first round

Statistics for Luguentz Dort during the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2020 first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets

Series game Minutes Points FG% 3-pts Rebs +/-
Game 2 25:20 8 30.0% 2 2 +4
Game 3 36:13 9 30.0 0 8 +10
Game 4 35:11 9 30.0 3 5 -7
Game 5 23:23 6 18.8 0 0 -24
Game 6 20:04 13 55.6 2 3 -2
Game 7 34:45 30 47.6 6 4 0

Dort was inactive for Game 1.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

All the while, Dort was tasked with guarding one of the best basketball players in the world: James Harden. Dort’s tight defense led to Harden passing off balls or chucking up contested shots. The Beard still racked up a few 30-point nights during the series, but in Game 7, Dort kept Harden to 17 points.

“I couldn’t fear him,” Dort said. “I know he’s one of the … no, he is the best scorer in the NBA. I can’t go and be like, ‘Ah, man, I’m playing the best scorer in the NBA.’ I can’t have that mindset.”

The game capped off a whirlwind debut season for the undrafted Canadian. He had been ready for the 2019 NBA Draft and brought his family and his boyhood coach, Nelson Ossé, from his hometown of Montreal to New York City for the festivities. Though a record six Canadians were taken, Dort’s name went uncalled — but it only added to the underdog legend he was building for himself.

“There’s not a lot of kids from Montreal that end up playing a Game 7 in a bubble, or just being in the NBA,” he said.

Dort grew up in Montreal-North, where his parents settled after emigrating from Haiti, and soccer — not basketball — was his first choice. The young goalkeeper would meet up with his friends to play hoops after soccer practice, and they eventually persuaded him to switch sports. When he was 12, he joined the Parc Ex Knights youth basketball team, coached by Ossé. Dort would travel from school to the gym and back home to Montreal-North by bus and the Metro system for a 90-minute commute.

Dort was a raw prospect, but Ossé and his coaching staff took a chance and made him the last pick of the team. Short on talent, but not on desire, Dort impressed Ossé with his work ethic; Ossé said Dort never missed a practice. He admitted that Dort needed a bit more motivation with his academics, but the coach — and Dort’s mother — pushed him and even convinced him to move to a school closer to where the Knights played.

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“He didn’t respond very well at first a few times, but then he saw me being very serious,” Ossé said. “He was not playing, he was not practicing. Then we started to see progress in class.”

Once Dort got his marks up, he continued his development as a player. His size and willingness to work on defense served him well.

“He was always physical. He did not back down from anyone because Lu was always big,” Ossé said. “He always took a challenge. He was very competitive. I think that’s what you need to be a very good defender.

“Being a defender, you could have the quickest feet, you could be the best athlete in the world. But you’ve got to actually love defending. And Lu’s been defending the best player on the other team at a young age.”

Dort’s journey would take him to the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, through the Brookwood Elite program, and he played high school ball in Jacksonville, Florida. He would eventually join the Arizona State men’s basketball team — the same squad that enlisted Harden.

Dort won Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Second-Team All-Pac 12 and All-Defense team honors in his lone year in Arizona. It was an impressive resume, but it wasn’t enough to be selected on draft night. “I was sad. It was tough. I was a little down,” Dort said. “It’s a dream of every player to walk across, shake the commissioner’s hand and put a hat on.”

But Dort caught on with the Thunder and signed a two-way contract with the team in July 2019. In his NBA debut last December, he put his defensive skills to work on a game-saving steal against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I felt like that was one of the biggest moments of the year,” Dort said. “I feel like that really set me up for the rest of the season.”

No one could have prepared Dort, or any other player, for COVID-19 to shut the season down. But once the teams returned to play in a bubble in Orlando, Dort had a feeling his Thunder squad would match up against the Rockets in the opening round. Once Dort drew the assignment of guarding Harden, he went to work watching film alongside teammate and former Rocket Chris Paul in his hotel room, absorbing advice on how to guard the former league MVP.

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“It’s not trying to block his shot — only thing you can do is make it harder,” Dort said. “Sometimes with my [stance], [I tried] to not give him a side. To stay square up. Those two things really helped.”

For much of the series, the approach worked. Dort frustrated Harden while forcing him to take tough shots. In the series-deciding game, Dort was shutting down the former Thunder guard while also putting up 30 points of his own, including 18 in the first half. All he needed was a game-winning shot in the final moments to put a bow on a Game 7 performance and an upset of the Rockets.

He came up just short.

Harden blocked Dort’s last-second shot — a sort of middle finger to those who’ve criticized his defense in the past. Dort caught the block, though, and tried to throw the ball out of bounds off Harden to give his team an inbounds play and a chance to set up a winning shot. If only Harden hadn’t jumped out of the way in time.

Houston survived Dort’s brilliant performance and advanced to the second round of the playoffs against the eventual league champion Los Angeles Lakers, while Oklahoma City’s postseason was cut short. Perhaps Dort can be forgiven for not being too excited about meeting with the media after Game 7.

“It was hard,” the Montrealer said. “Because we lost that game, and that was it. That was the end of the season. The way that it ended too. I didn’t want to put it on myself, but at the same time, it was tough.”

Dort and the Thunder now enter the new season with a new roster and new questions. Head coach Billy Donovan won’t be back on the sidelines, and superstar Paul is off to Phoenix. All Dort can do is prepare himself by improving his decision-making, his play-making abilities and his shot.

He anticipates that more people may pay attention to his progress and could view him a bit differently. Since that Houston series, he’s been lauded for his defensive efforts and has drawn praise from his peers, notably Harden.

“Now people don’t just look at me as an undrafted player,” Dort said. “The fact that I did all of that this season — that kind of changed the way people look at me.”

Footnotes

  1. He was inactive for Game 1.

Julian McKenzie is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. His work can be found in the Canadian Press, the Montreal Gazette, Yahoo Sports, the Sporting News and elsewhere, and he is a co-host of The Scrum Podcast.

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