The NBA restart is less than a month away, and I am feeling like a kid before Christmas. Each passing day I get more and more excited for what the NBA will look like after the several month layoff.
All my questions for the 2019-20 season will finally be answered. Will LeBron get ring number four? How are the Clippers going beat the Lakers when all the chips are on the table? Will Blazer fans realize that Dame’s “shot of all shots” against the Thunder last year sent them into a rebuild, not OKC?
All jokes aside, the NBA restart is a serious matter. And the NBA gave the Thunder a serious schedule. Although, they did stiff our small market team with only two ESPN televised games…their loss. I’ll be enjoying watching Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schröder tear teams up in the fourth quarter–you can enjoy your Lakers reruns.
How the Thunder will fare in their eight-game slate is up for debate, and I’m diving into it now.
The eight-game slate
Now before I jump directly into what to expect from each matchup, it has to be noted that the basketball won’t be very good.
Each time a stoppage in play has forced the NBA to deviate from its normal calendar, (for example, a lockout) the product on the court has suffered because the return to play is so sudden. You can’t expect the teams to be the same upon their return to play in Orlando. We don’t know how much these guys have been working out, getting shots up, and just playing basketball. So, the expectation cannot be just picking up where we left off in March. It will be something new.
Many of the stats that have accumulated to this point in the season can be thrown out the window. What matters most is team continuity and adaptability within the Orlando bubble.
Game 1: Thunder vs. Utah (8/1)
The NBA starts off the Thunder’s run in Orlando seemingly where it left off. This game against Utah is for every chip left in the bag. It’s for that sacred last slice of pizza, and both teams have their hand on it.
The Jazz and the Thunder will finish with the same amount of games played at the end of the regular season. If they somehow manage to have identical records at that point, this game will become the tie-breaker between the two ball clubs. And in the event of a Thunder win here, they can jump the Jazz in the final standings. Sheesh. That’s one way to start things off.
Game 2: Thunder vs. Nuggets (8/3)
This game against is important because, if you remember, the Thunder were gaining traction on the team in Mile High city at the break. They were less than three games back, and the teams had split the season series.
These two teams are far more competitive than the casual NBA fan will notice. The Thunder lost the first matchup between the two in mid-December by eight points, but in February beat them by 12. With questions surrounding who Denver’s go-to guy is down the stretch, this is a seriously winnable game for the Thunder. And we get to see skinny Nikola Jokic, so that’s a plus.
Game 3: Thunder vs. Lakers (8/5)
There isn’t much to say about this matchup. Barring any real surprise, the Lakers are probably going to win. They have beat the Thunder in all three of their regular-season matchups. And in one of those games they didn’t even play Anthony Davis or LeBron. If the Lakers rest both their studs, which I doubt, the Thunder might have a good chance at, at least, making this game competitive.
Game 4: Thunder vs. Memphis (8/7)
In a vacuum, this game shouldn’t create much pressure on the Thunder. The Grizzlies, as it stands, aren’t a .500 ball club, and this game is the opening doorway into the lighter side of the Thunder’s eight-game title in Florida. Look for a game that the Thunder hope to decide early so they can afford their veterans some rest on the back-end of the game.
Game 5: Thunder vs. Wizards (8/9)
The Wizards aren’t a good ball club. I am sorry if there are any Wizards fans out there, but they haven’t been great all season. They have the worst defense in the league, allowing 115 points per 100 possessions. They also lost Davis Bertans, who will be sitting out of Orlando because he is in line for quite the payday.
With Bradley Beal the only offensive creator for Washington left, this is a must-win for the Thunder. The key to success in Orlando is simply beating the teams you are supposed to beat, and for the Thunder, this is definitely one of those.
Game 6: Thunder vs. Suns (8/10)
If the Thunder had to play in a back-to-back, this was the most favorable possibility: the Wizards one night, and the dead on arrival Suns the next. This game is a cut and dry affair.
The Suns, though better this year, still aren’t an elite level ball club. With the team still young and Devin Booker lacking in big-game experience, this is a game the Thunder should view as favorable. It might even be another opportunity for the Thunder to rest some of their veterans. Maybe there will be a Devon Hall sighting?
Game 7: Thunder vs. Heat (8/12)
The Heat and Thunder paradox is a strange one. The Thunder haven’t been able to guard them all season, and with the uncertainty of player condition upon the return, those struggles might continue.
The Heat are a three-point shooting team that utilizes primary ball handlers that are creators. With gunners like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro surrounding Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, stopping Miami is a tall task for the Thunder.
Game 8: Thunder vs. Clippers (8/14)
This game will most likely function as a playoff tune-up for both teams involved. The hope will be that the Thunder end up at either the three spot or sixth spot in the Western Conference standings–where you can avoid the dreaded Lakers second-round matchup. This game could see Billy Donovan resting players, but again, since there are only eight games it could really matter.
At a glance: The Orlando schedule takeaway
The Thunder don’t have the easiest schedule in the bubble, but they don’t have the most difficult slate either. All but two games (Lakers and Clippers) feel winnable for the Thunder. Depending on the seeding, we get a second-round Thunder team in the playoffs, something we haven’t seen in four years.
At best, I can see the Thunder going 5-3, most likely dropping a game against a beatable team like Memphis. At worst, I can see a 2-6 bubble record that could rework the expectations for this team headed into the postseason. The weird Thunder “rebuilding” year is only getting weirder.