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As Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gained a head of steam to go mano a mano against the heart of the Jazz defense, another one on one was brewing inside The Peake.
My head and my heart.
As a proud patron of Team Tank, my brain knew the best thing for the future of this OKC squad was for SGA to miss a game winning layup at the buzzer because to properly tank for a top 3 pick you have to eventually, you know, lose.
But my heart went rogue. This was Shai, the fashionable face of the franchise, going one on one against two-time Defensive Player of the Year and one-time microphone toucher Rudy Gobert with the chance to start the season off with back to back game winning shots. Forget you, hippocampus, I wanted that Wilson to drop.
The shot didn’t sink, but my heart did.
Meanwhile, visions of Sugar Cades danced in my head.
As Thunder fans’ two most vital organs engage in an internal civil war, let’s dig up the root of our rooting confusion.
Through two games, one thing is clear about the 2020-2021 Oklahoma City Thunder: unlike Wonder Woman 1984, they’re much better than advertised.
Thunder fans have mentally prepared to fully embrace losing this season. For many, the idea of trying to finish as the team with the worst record in the NBA is surprisingly exciting. After a series of offseason trades that sent Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari packing to playoff pastures, nothing could stand in the way of OKC drafting one of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs.
So why was Mark Daigneault one missed Shai layup away from starting his coaching career out 2-0?
Because the Thunder as currently constructed are too good to tank. And for some, seeing an on-court product that appears capable of competing causes conflicting feelings about longing for losses versus wishing for wins.
This isn’t a kneejerk reaction to a small sample size.
While OKC will be out-talented by contending teams and playoff teams most nights, the Thunder will out-class their fellow lottery teams and surprise some of the other sixteen far too often to guarantee a top 5 pick.
The Thunder has too much talent, effort, energy, balance, size and smarts in the starting lineup with Shai, Al Horford, George Hill, Darius Bazley and, most importantly, Lu Dort.
James Harden’s worst nightmare outside of a broken ATM machine was the best player for either team on Monday night. On both sides of the court.
Dort scored a career high 26 points including five made 3s while locking up Donovan Mitchell through three quarters. Mitchell came up clutch and hit some tough shots in the final quarter to win the game for Utah, but Dort was still the player of the game in a losing effort.
A losing effort, but not for lack of effort. Fighting for wins is in the Thunder’s DNA, even when they’re supposed to be bad. When KD left, OKC was supposed to miss the playoffs. Russ said nope. When Russ and PG13 were traded, OKC was supposed to miss the playoffs. CP3 said nope. After last year’s old vets were traded in for a new tank, OKC was supposed to be the worst team in the NBA. Shai, Baze and Dort said nope.
Sam Presti did his best to bottom out, but if the Thunder’s draft fate is going to be decided by 72 Shai shots, then Sammy may have to punch the tank’s gas pedal.
This was nearly the template for the perfect Thunder game this season.
It was a full 48 minutes of entertaining, competitive, fun basketball that went down to the wire. The returning young trio of Shai, Bazley and especially Dort all played well. Horford shined in the first half, Hill stood out in the second half, and Mike Muscala cha-chinged several Thunder moneyballs. Theo Maledon looked more like the preseason draft steal than the rookie in headlights he did against the Hornets. And ultimately, the most important thing: a loss.
But I can’t say this game was quite perfect, and not only for a lack of Poku points.
The Thunder did the one thing we were promised we didn’t have to worry about this season: they gave us hope.
- During the Jazz’s player intros, Hamidou Diallo was pretend shooting jumpers and Poku pretend blocked his shots.
- Current Thunder legend Lu Dort hit more 3s in the first 40 seconds of this game than former Thunder legend Kelly Oubre has hit through three games.
- A tanking team featuring Al Horford is like a Lifetime movie featuring Al Pacino.
- Sam Presti traded away Chris Paul, Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari and somehow OKC is still a highly entertaining, competitive team. To quote an old friend, Presti made chicken salad out of chicken something else.
- Mike Muscala has officially entered “Thunder could flip him for a draft pick” protocol.
- Lu Dort set a career high of 26 and gave OKC the lead back with just over a minute left on his 5th 3 of the game. Played like it was Game 7 of a playoff series.
- Through two games, Dort is averaging 20.5 points and shooting 45.5% from 3… while playing All NBA defense.
- Darius Bazley was one point away from his second straight double double.
- Poku was 0-2 and hasn’t scored a point yet this season, but he was the only bench player with a positive +/- with a +3.
- Outside of his outside shooting, Shai has been very good in his first two games as the lead guy.
- Al Horford says they miss Thunder fans because playing with other teams for years, OKC fans were always difference makers. Horford says OKC is “one of the few places in the NBA” where the fans can truly get the team going.
- George Hill with the quote of the night: “We play to win. That’s Oklahoma City basketball. Win or loss, we represent this city and this city represents us.”