OKLAHOMA CITY — The strict sideline instruction from Oklahoma City Thunder coach Mark Daigneault did not include an immediate double-team of Kyrie Irving out past half court, no matter how scary Irving can be in the closing moments of a playoff game.

On Monday night, in Game 4, desperately trying to even their second-round series with the Dallas Mavericks, the Thunder were up three with 9.1 seconds left. Daigneault called for the foul up-three strategy — let a little clock tick, but make sure to intentionally grab any ballhandler before he could get a clean, potential game-tying 3 up toward the basket. Turn it into a free throw game.

Here’s the issue: The Thunder had two rookies in their closing lineup and employ the youngest rotation in the league. They only have two total playoff points from anybody over the age of 25. They expect an understandable amount of growing pains. This is the first inning of what they believe can be a nine-inning, decade-long run in the playoff gauntlet for this infant core.

Cason Wallace, along with Chet Holmgren, was the second rookie on the floor with their season ostensibly on the line. He’s a sharp but ambitious defender, thirsty to hound the league’s best scorers. On this particular possession, he got too thirsty. Jalen Williams had Irving under control 55 feet from the rim. Wallace had a different assignment.

“Dub was right there, about to foul,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Cason went to double-team, left somebody open: P.J. Washington, who has been shooting the piss out the ball. So I was very confused.”

Meet the Thunder’s best player, but also their loudest on-court leader, if the situation calls. Gilgeous-Alexander is 25, but already finishing his sixth NBA season. He’s been on two franchises and part of three playoff teams. He’s been traded, absorbed a rebuild and built himself into an MVP candidate on the top seed. He will guide them into their first elimination game as a core on Saturday night in Dallas after a Game 5 loss on Wednesday. His experience and ability gives him stature in the Thunder’s locker room. His work ethic and attention to detail have set the tone.

As Gilgeous-Alexander was explaining the Wallace mix-up, Williams temporarily interrupted, reminding him not to publicly reveal too much strategy. Gilgeous-Alexander shrugged it off. He’s the vet. He knows what and what shouldn’t be shared with the press.

“This is common knowledge,” he said.

Irving read the early double and lobbed it over the top to Washington, who at the time was 19 of 37 on 3s in the series. This is trouble, a fire that needs extinguishing before it becomes the biggest mistake of OKC’s season.

Gilgeous-Alexander spots it. He runs off his man in the corner and grabs Washington before he can get in his shooting motion. The foul call comes late, but it comes. Here’s the save that basically sealed the Thunder’s 100-94 win in Game 4.

Gilgeous-Alexander spent the initial moments after the whistle in dialogue with the official, pointing to the exact spot on the floor he committed the foul, ensuring them it came on the ground before Washington got a pass off to the corner. Then, once confirmed, he turned his attention to Wallace, lighting into the rookie in front of the world for the mistake. It wasn’t costly, but it could’ve been and might be if it is repeated in the future.

“I apologized to Cason after,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I felt bad. Because he does nothing wrong all game and the one time he does something wrong, I yell at him. But we’re good.”

This is a brief peek into the evolving leadership style of a star player who could be captaining a defining NBA team the next half-decade plus. He’s smooth and calm on the surface, a new husband and father, a generous lead-by-example type in private but increasingly willing to scold and instruct when necessary.

Holmgren might’ve explained it best the day after Game 1 of this series. The night before, he was guarding some Irving high-screen action to close the third quarter. As Daniel Gafford, his man, set the screen, Holmgren sat way too deep in his drop coverage, allowing Irving to step into a 3 at the buzzer.

Holmgren dropped his head as soon as it swished. Gilgeous-Alexander shouted at him as they entered the timeout huddle.

“I didn’t know the clock situation,” Holmgren said. “So he’s yelling at me: ‘All he could do is shoot it!’ I wasn’t up.”

Holmgren still has a level of anguish on his face about the mistake, even though the Thunder won.

“I knew I f—ed up,” he said. “He didn’t have to tell me. But he got on me. Which is…accountability. He comes in here every day and sets the example. He’s not going to get mad at anybody for something he’s not out there doing at the same time.”

But Holmgren has a qualifier, using a legendary Kobe Bryant story he’d heard from Lou Williams on a podcast to differentiate.

“He’s super chill,” Holmgren said. “Usually it’s just kind of talking us through mistakes. He’s not in here reigning like Kobe (Bryant) was. He’s not the type of guy who’d take his (signature) shoes away because he doesn’t want us wearing them. That’s not him.”

Chris Paul, a renowned communicator who is a fan of the phone call over the text message, picks up just after getting off the other line with Gilgeous-Alexander. They’d spent some time talking about life and basketball, including the schematics defining this Dallas series.

“We talk hoop all the time,” Paul said.

Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t tell Paul he’d zinged Holmgren for sagging too far back on the Irving jumper, but Paul was pleased to hear about it from a reporter. Paul has yelled at a center or two in his time for a mistake.

“I’m glad,” Paul said. “That’s big.”

Then he laughed: “I mean…He got to see it.”

Paul’s 15th NBA season lined up with Gilgeous-Alexander’s second. Gilgeous-Alexander was traded from the LA Clippers to the Thunder on July 6, 2019. The NBA world was in Las Vegas for summer league at the time. Paul, then on the Houston Rockets, ran into Gilgeous-Alexander and told him the Thunder situation would be great for him.

“Little did I know…” Paul said.

Because of his time in Los Angeles, Paul is close to Clippers trainer Jasen Powell. When Gilgeous-Alexander was a rookie, Powell told Paul he loved the young guard’s demeanor and professionalism. He worked and cared about the game. Paul took note from afar.

But then Thunder general manager Sam Presti brought them together. The Paul George trade from OKC to the Clippers triggered the early stages of a roster reset. Five days later, the Thunder traded Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Paul and draft-pick compensation.

Fourteen years apart in age, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander now shared a backcourt together, often placed in three-guard lineups with Dennis Schröder. Daigneault, then a young assistant on Billy Donovan’s staff, is still seeing the defensive flowers bloom from all of Gilgeous-Alexander’s time that season defending wings and shouldering key assignments for a playoff team.

“He had to guard up,” Daigneault said. “He was basically a (small forward) when we played those guys together and the other guy out there was (Danilo) Gallinari. It wasn’t like he was taking major matchups. So Shai was guarding real guys.”

That season, COVID-19 hit. The Thunder were about to tip off an important March game against the Utah Jazz for the third seed when Rudy Gobert’s test came back positive, shutting the world down. The league picked back up in the Orlando bubble in July, a secluded environment at a lonely time.

This was already Paul’s first season away from his family on a daily basis. They didn’t move with him to Oklahoma City. So during homestands, he spent a ton of time with Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley. Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander went to G League games together to watch Dort play. Gilgeous-Alexander joined him on a couple flights back to Los Angeles to see Paul’s family.

In the bubble, Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort and Bazley would pile into a room together to watch basketball on off-nights. They’d discuss strategy and then translate those basketball lessons to the court in Orlando. Paul remembers a game where the opposing team brought its big men up to the level of the screen, guarding Gilgeous-Alexander.

“Most of these young guys in the league only know drop defense,” Paul said. “It was funny, man, Shai in that Canadian accent: ‘C, what do I do?’ We talked about shows. The low man is going to be here, look at the corner, all that stuff. Now you watch him and he’s just so comfortable with his game.”

As a rookie, Gilgeous-Alexander shared a locker room with Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Avery Bradley. They snuck into the first round and pushed the Kevin Durant-era Warriors to six games. Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 28.8 minutes that series. In the bubble, the Thunder finished as the fifth seed and lost to the Rockets in a seven-game, first-round series. Gilgeous-Alexander said, besides Game 4 in Dallas on Tuesday night, that Game 7 was probably the biggest prior game of his career.

“I’ve just grown through experiences,” he said. “That (first Thunder) year, there was a lot of personalities and leaders on that team. Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, a lot of guys that lead in their own way, do it at a high level. To be able to sit back my second year in the NBA and watch that, and learn from it and then ultimately do it my way.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has learned a lot of the tricks of the trade from Chris Paul, including how to pick his former teammate’s pocket. (Ian Maule / Getty Images)

The Thunder hit the acceleration button on their rebuild that offseason. They traded Paul, Schröder, Steven Adams and Gallinari, making Gilgeous-Alexander the lead ballhandler, lead scorer and unquestioned leader of their next era, providing a lower-stakes environment to develop without contending pressure. Daigneault stepped into the head coaching seat.

“The path was cleared for him,” Daigneault said. “When those guys go away, it’s just you. Circumstance, it ripens. Then to his credit, he grabbed the wheel.”

Dort was an undrafted two-way player during the bubble season, playing himself into a four-year, $5.4 million contract entering that next season. But he used his initial financial boost to buy his family a home back in Montreal.

“I still had enough money to get me a decent house out here,” Dort said. “But everything was shut down and we couldn’t really do anything.”

Restaurants were shuttered. Arenas were empty. Life was lonely. Players had to test for COVID-19 on the regular. Space and friendship held increased value.

Gilgeous-Alexander, living in an Edmond, Okla., mansion, told Dort to move into his house. He had plenty of room. If this was his first act as a franchise face, it was a pretty substantial one. Dort accepted.

“He offered for me to stay there the whole season,” Dort said.

Kenrich Williams joined the Thunder that season. Besides Dort, he’s Gilgeous-Alexander’s longest-tenured teammate. He’s seen the subtle, steady growth and laughs now because he’s seen Gilgeous-Alexander turn into a respected, emulated mentor.

“(Jalen Williams), it’s kind of like twins, man,” Kenrich said. “He kind of wants to do everything Shai does. Similar demeanor. It’s not like an, ‘I want to be him.’ It’s an, ‘I admire him.’ It speaks to everything he’s accomplished and where he’s at in his career.”

Gilgeous-Alexander invited Jalen Williams to work out with him in Toronto right after the Thunder drafted Williams and again between Williams’ first and second season. Williams said he saw an increased level of focus and intention in Gilgeous-Alexander’s summer workouts, leading to that extra MVP-level bump this season.

Kenrich Williams has seen Gilgeous-Alexander take the film room and the scouting and game plan focus to an extra level, locking in on assignments and tendencies, which has a trickle-down to the rest of the roster.

Dort was with Gilgeous-Alexander when the Donovan-Mitchell-to-the-Cleveland-Cavaliers trade was announced two summers ago. Gilgeous-Alexander told him when it happened: “Good. Another All-Star out of the West.” He made the All-Star team the next February.

“When he said that, I was like: ‘Whoa. That’s his goal now,’” Dort said. “That’s where his mentality is at now.”

The Thunder won 22 and 24 games his first two seasons as the lead guard, even as his talent and league status spiked. Some questioned how long Gilgeous-Alexander would remain happy in Oklahoma City. He maintained his belief in the franchise and the rebuild the entire time, signing a five-year extension without a player option. He still has three years left on his deal.

“Just like everything else he does, he’s just very steadily, marginally improved as a leader over time,” Daigneault said of Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s learning. He’s still learning at 25. This is his first playoffs in this position.

“Everybody says you lead by example, you lead through your actions. Well, when we draft a new player, when Cason Wallace comes in the door, their eyes go first to him. He’s an All-Star, All-NBA player. Max contract. And he’s in the gym early, in the gym late, in the weight room. Major focus. The diet’s amazing. Everything about his life revolves around him becoming the best player you can be.”

Daigneault, a voracious New England Patriots fan from Massachusetts, consumes a ton of content about the dynasty years. He referenced a Peter King interview with Tom Brady — “about avocado ice cream or something” — as it relates to Gilgeous-Alexander.

“Brady says, ‘You know, the thing I love as much as football…’ Something like this. I’m paraphrasing …’Is preparing to play football,’” Daigneault said. “That’s what this guy’s like. He loves the process of becoming a great basketball player as much as being a great basketball player. When everybody walks in and that’s your guy, that’s the guy that has all the things that everybody wants, you see the work behind it. It’s just such a tone-setter for everything.”

And it allows Gilgeous-Alexander to get on a teammate in the heat of the battle because there’s substance behind the fire.

“He’s about the solutions,” Daigneault said. “Let’s get this thing fixed. Let’s get this right. And he’s willing to work towards that. That’s the best thing about him. You have all these ups and downs in a game and in a season and it’s not a catastrophe with him. He’s just focused on getting it right the next possession, the next day, the next game.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander blocks a Luka Doncic pass

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has held his own in the playoffs against Luka Dončić and the Mavericks. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

The Thunder played the Raptors in Toronto way back in December 2021, the second season of the rebuild. They had a 7-16 record. Josh Giddey remembers that particular night because it was the first time, as a core, they had to deal with a defense blitzing Gilgeous-Alexander with two bodies. Giddey recalled how vocal Gilgeous-Alexander was in helping them solve the coverage.

“I’m surprised Josh remembers that,” Daigneault said with a pleased smile.

To him, it’s an important growth point in their climb to relevance.

“We were protecting like a 15-point lead,” Daigneault said. “We’re on the road. They go bonkers. It was a Nick Nurse team. They were doubling all over the place. It was chaos. We weren’t ready for it. We were frantic.”

Daigneault remembers most for their final offensive possession that night. Down two with 10 seconds left, he drew up an out-of-bounds call to get Gilgeous-Alexander an attack to the rim. Gilgeous-Alexander blew past Scottie Barnes, stopped about eight feet from the rim, drew another defender in the air with a pump fake and had a semi-open look to tie it from about eight feet out.

“We’re a rebuilding team,” Daigneault said. “He’s trying to make his way. He hadn’t been an All-Star at that point. We’re in his hometown. We run a side out-of-bounds play designed for him. He gets into the lane, draws a crowd and …

“Kicks the ball to Mike Muscala,” Daigneault says with a laugh. “Muscala hits a 3. We win. And, it’s like, I don’t know how many guys don’t take the shot. He has the license to take it. We’re in the midst of a rebuild. It can be his moment. It’d be very easy to take that approach. But he sprays the ball to a teammate. It was like, yeah, there’s something there.”

Here’s the play.

Fast-forward to May 2024. Gilgeous-Alexander has the Mavericks on the ropes in Game 4, having made 10 midrange jumpers en route to 34 points. He’s particularly hot in the fourth quarter, drawing crowds but still sending in rainbow jumpers. He hits his 14th shot of the night with just under four minutes left.

But in closing time, he instead gets three assists, including this spray to a center, similar to the Muscala scenario. Gilgeous-Alexander gets past Washington, draws Luka Dončić and finds Holmgren for a crucial 3.

Gilgeous-Alexander, when asked about the trust he shows in his teammates, quickly points out a late fourth-quarter possession from two days prior where he failed.

“Game 3, I shot a pull-up 3 and missed,” he said. “Probably shouldn’t have shot it. It’s a make or miss thing. If it goes in, I’m a hero. So I have (bad) moments. You just work through it. I just try to find myself trying to find the right balance. There’s a balance that you have to find, when to attack, when to pass, when to make the right play, when to not make the right play and trust your skill. It’s something that I battle with a lot and try to be really good at.

“But ultimately, this comes down to taking what the defense gives you and trusting your teammates. You need them to win at a high level, and that’s clear as day. I want to win at that high level, so there is no option.”

Gilgeous-Alexander’s next leadership task: Bring his young Thunder back to life against the Mavericks after Dončić and company went into Oklahoma City late Wednesday and ripped back homecourt.

“Our mood won’t change,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Our mentality won’t change.”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic. Photos: Cooper Neill / Zach Beeker / Ron Hoskins / NBAE via Getty Images)