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The Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz finally played a game 143 days in the making.
On March 11, 2020, the eyes of the world zeroed in on OKC as the epicenter and ground zero for the United States’ coronavirus shut down.
Over that time, we’ve learned a lot of new names of people, places and things of varying significance.
Flattening the curve.
We’re not the same as a society as we were on March 11. Simultaneously fighting a worldwide pandemic and racial injustice has forever changed our country, for better or worse. I still believe wholeheartedly in the good of our people. But of course, we can be better. Hopefully, we’ve learned. Hopefully, we’ve grown. Hopefully, we’ve gotten better.
The same could be said of the Thunder.
The last we’d seen of this overachieving, highly entertaining and likable OKC squad, they were riding high off of a three game winning streak, all on the road. The headliner was an exciting and unexpected statement comeback win against the Boston Celtics in the final pre-COVID contest.
The Thunder were good. But they could be better.
The one real weakness this team had pre-Bubble was reliable depth. The top of the roster could go head to head with any team. The closing lineup of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams was an absolute monster, and Nerlens Noel was a super sub. But other than those six guys, the Thunder roster was filled with young, inconsistent players.
Enter Disney Magic.
I don’t know if it was the natural progression of essentially having an entire offseason to improve, Chris Paul’s influence, Billy Donovan’s coaching, or Sam Presti bumping into The Genie on campus, but Thunder U 2.0’s rookies and sophomores are playing like graduating valedictorians.
Lu Dort pre-Bubble was a tenacious defender and a fast fan favorite for his high energy hustle, but he was still carrying on the tradition of starting Thunder shooting guards who couldn’t shoot. While he showed flashes, Lu was a 30% three-point shooter for the season. Counting scrimmage games and the Utah game, Dort has hit 7 of 18 thee-pointers. That’s 38.9%.
As for that famous Dort defense? Jazz All Star Donovan Mitchell may change his vote for DPOY from teammate Rudy Gobert to the man who made him struggle for a meager 13 points on 15 shots. Actually, Mitchell probably isn’t voting Gobert for anything these days.
Darius Bazley pre-Bubble was a sweet, funny kid who could block some shots, grab a few boards, tantalize fans with his ball handling upside, and not much else. Against Utah, the 20 year old scored 10 points and played top notch defense. He looks more polished, confident and skilled. Between the scrimmages and the Utah game, Bazley has hit 8 of 17 threes. That’s 47%.
Hamidou Diallo pre-Bubble was a slam dunk champion. That’s all I got. Now, he may be the most surprising Thunder player of all. If you took a straw poll of Thunder fans asking which players they expected to be the first guard/forward off the bench besides Schroder, I think the results would have gone: 1. Andre Roberson 2. Abdel Nader 3. Terrance Ferguson 4. Hamidou Diallo. The fact Hami checked in before and played many more minutes than those three is shocking. The fact Hami hit two 3’s is even more shocking. He scored 9 points on 6 shots, grabbed 4 rebounds, played solid defense and brought high energy for 20 minutes. This comes off the back of his best ever showing in the Blazers scrimmage.
I don’t have a lot of trust in Diallo, but I have a ton of trust in Donovan. And if the future Coach of the Year first runner-up believes Diallo will help the team, then some blog boi like me should just shut up and enjoy.
Then there’s the Curious Case of Andre Roberson. Pre-Bubble Dre was DOA. Scrimmage Dre was MVP. Utah Dre was MIA. My thoughts are WTF. The promising thing is that Donovan played Robes to close out the first half with the starters. Sure, Schroder was in foul trouble. But Billy had Dre out there over Dort and Diallo. The game got out of hand, so hopefully Roberson’s lack of minutes was due to ramping up his minutes and not overplaying him in a blowout.
But Roberson’s return along with the apparent Disney leaps from Dort, Bazley and Diallo all of a sudden give the Thunder the one thing they lacked: depth. The Thunder had six players score in double digits against the Jazz, and Diallo was 1 point away from making it seven. OKC will ultimately go as far as CP3, Shai, Gallo, Schroder and Adams can take them. And the scrimmage play and Jazz game is still a small sample size. But if OKC’s 7-10 players can be a net neutral instead of a net negative, it raises both the floor and ceiling of this team dramatically.
The Thunder, predicted to tank this season, looked like a much better team than the Jazz, predicted to be a Finals contender. From all verbal accounts off the court from Presti, Donovan and players to all results on the court from the scoreboard, OKC has improved since March 11.
They’ve learned. They’ve grown. They’ve gotten better.
- The Thunder have now won 4 games in a row (7 if you count scrimmage games) and all of them away from the comforts of The Peake.
- If OKC beats Denver and the Lakers beat the Jazz on Monday night, the Thunder will be half a game behind the Nuggets for the 3 seed.
- Every Thunder and Jazz player kneeled during the national anthem.
- No word yet on the Thunder’s 2020 tax returns.
- Some fans were a little worried about Chris Paul’s rustiness in scrimmages. Paul put up a line of 18/7/7/2 on 11 shots and was a ridiculous +27 in 27 minutes. CP3 used some CLR.
- Chris Paul punking a defender with the rip move for two easy free throws? Okay NOW Thunder basketball is officially back.
- Dort, Diallo and Bazley hit back to back to back 3’s. If the young guys have truly improved their shooting, the Thunder are going to be tough for any team to beat.
- Thunder virtual fans in the stands included OKC Mayor David Holt, social media star and Andre Roberson stan Rachel DeMita, and CP3’s wife and son Jada and Little Chris.
- Gallo was called for one of the weakest Flagrant 1’s you’ll ever see. Real brave when you don’t have to face 18,000 fans in Chesapeake Energy Arena, refs.
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did not care one single bit that Rudy Gobert is the two time DPOY. Shai attacked Gobert with no hesitation and finished a few of his trademarked smooth layups.
- Adams: 16 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks.
- Gobert: 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks.
- Shai in 32 minutes: 19 points. 6-12 shooting. 2-5 from 3. 6 assists. 2 rebounds. 3 steals. 2 turnovers. +15.
- Mitchell in 32 minutes: 13 points. 5-15 shooting. 0-4 from 3. 4 assists. 1 rebound. 0 steals. 4 turnovers. -8.
- Both of Shai’s made 3’s were of the step back variety. With his length, that shot is unguardable.
- The Thunder’s scrimmage sloppiness with the ball carried over into this game, as OKC had 18 turnovers. There. A negative note. Now nobody can accuse me of sunshine pumping.
- Is Shai as good as Donovan Mitchell now? It’s a real conversation.
- Is the Thunder the third best team in the West now? It’s a real conversation.
- Up next: Thunder vs Nuggets on Monday night. This is the biggest of the eight Bubble games for OKC. The result will impact the Thunder’s seed, the Nuggets’ draft pick OKC owns and their own draft pick OKC may or may not own.