By: Field Level Media
Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Bubble Restart Preview
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (40-24), tied for 5th in Western Conference
Where are they now: The Thunder enter the final eight games of the regular season at the bottom of a four-team logjam of clubs dueling for third seeding in the Western Conference. Not that Denver, Utah or Houston wouldn’t trade places with them. Of the four, only Oklahoma City has gotten through the coronavirus pandemic unscathed. So far, anyway.
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The immediate schedule, on paper, appears to be a bear as the 2020 surprise team attempts to make up a 2½-game deficit on the Nuggets (43-22) and one-game deficit on the Jazz (41-23); they are tied with the Rockets (40-24). But that’s on paper. A Jazz-Nuggets-Lakers stretch has softened with recent news of injuries (Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic and the Lakers’ Rajon Rondo), an illness (Nikola Jokic) and an opt-out (Avery Bradley). Then bring on the Grizzlies and a playoff hopeful’s dream back-to-back: Wizards-Suns.
Oklahoma City Thunder First Half Highlights
The coronavirus break couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Thunder, who were arguably playing the best basketball in the league as they prepared to take their home floor against Utah, without Rudy Gobert, on March 11. Streaking Oklahoma City was coming off a three-game road sweep, capped by a win at Boston, to complete an 8-2 run.
The season began with a 6-11 struggle, not surprising in that future-looking trades had taken away 50.9 points per game from the previous season in the form of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. But then Chris Paul found a fountain of youth, Clippers import Shai Gilgeous-Alexander blossomed into a star and the Thunder seemingly made every clutch shot they needed, pulling out 15 wins from games that were within a single point in the final minute and going 34-13 after Thanksgiving, the second-best record in the NBA to Milwaukee.
Oklahoma City Thunder Bubble Roster Rundown
How does one team win 16 games in which it trailed entering the fourth quarter, while no one else in the league accomplished the feat more than eight times? It all starts with Paul, who credits a plant-based diet for helping ignite a turn-back-the-clock season in which the 35-year-old has averaged 2.2 more points than last year (17.7) while shooting his highest percentage (48.9) since 2010.
And you want leadership? With tensions running high as the NBA was pondering what to do on the final night before the coronavirus-mandate break, Paul had beer and wine delivered to the locker room to share in a celebration with his teammates on what might have been the end of the season.
“I truly believe it: We got a special team,” Paul gushed shortly after he and his virus-free teammates entered the NBA bubble. “We got a really special team and we genuinely love to be around each other.”
Then there’s Gilgeous-Alexander, who epitomized the Thunder’s never-say-die attitude, shooting 57 percent and recording a plus-111 plus/minus in the final five minutes of games within five points.
Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Bubble Playoff Outlook
They’ve been the story of the year, but can it continue? Here’s one reason why it might: While other teams are losing players to illness, injury and opt-outs, the Thunder have welcomed back defensive whiz Andre Roberson, who hasn’t played since January of 2018 because of a patella tendon injury.
Oklahoma City might be seeded as low as sixth entering the Western playoffs, but with no home-court advantage, it might not matter. The road to the NBA’s 2020 championship runs through Central Florida, and nobody in the West has been better away from home than the Thunder, who entered the break having won 20 of their last 25 on the road.
Oklahoma City Thunder Best Bets: Thunder (plus-410 on FanDuel) over Jazz by 1-to-5 points on Aug. 1. Have you paid attention to the Oklahoma City season? Every game is close. The Thunder benefit here from getting extra days of preparation, with the Jazz having returned on July 30 to face New Orleans.
Thunder-Jazz (plus-105 on FanDuel) to be decided by seven points or fewer on Aug. 1. Nine of Oklahoma City’s last 15 games were decided by seven or fewer points. The Thunder also already has a 100-95 win at Utah this season.