With the excitement of basketball back, the Thunder shift their focus to how they can make some serious noise in Orlando.
The NBA announced its 22-team plan on returning to play, featuring an eight-game slate before heading into postseason play. The postseason action will include a short play-in tournament if the nine seed falls within four games of the eighth seed in either conference.
So what does this mean for your Thunder?
Before the lockdown
Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Thunder were surging up the Western Conference standings. The team had won its last three games, and was 8-2 in their last 10. Five of those wins came against teams also invited to the Orlando NBA campus: Pelicans, Nuggets, Spurs, Kings, Celtics.
The team had moved within a game of passing Utah, and had a game in hand against the Jazz before Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, when his illness quickly progressed from an expected Thunder win to a suspended season on March 11.
Chris Paul was also in the midst of enjoying his healthiest season in recent memory. He had already passed last season’s total games played, playing in 63 of 64 total contests. He seemed to be peaking right as the NBA went into limbo, leading an injured Thunder squad to a win over the rising Celtics.
Yet, playoff health has always been a question for CP3. One has to believe that the few months off help his playoff push.
Dennis Schröder also began surging in the month of March. In four games before the suspension, he put up counting stats of 22.5 points and 4.5 assists per game. His Sixth Man öf the Year campaign was not taking off, but instead soaring.
Lastly, before the break, the Thunder were resting Danilo Gallinari often on back to backs. Billy Donovan was also keeping Steven Adam’s minutes under 30 a night.
All are signs of a veteran team cognizant of the postseason looming, and believing they have a shot at a favorable round one matchup.
Ready for Orlando
In short, the Thunder’s eight games in Orlando matter.
The team does not have the privilege of the Lakers, Clippers, or Bucks in this new NBA format. They can’t coast through the season-ending games while prepping for the “real” postseason. The space between the three seed through the seventh seed in the West is separated by four games. Every game is a must-win.
If the Thunder go 2-6 in Orlando while Dallas and Houston win out, the Thunder would get the lovely draw of the Clippers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. In an NBA where home-court advantage is gone, matchups matter even more. And in the latest game against the Clips, the Thunder lost 109-94.
That loss was in a game where both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George didn’t play particularly well. In the heightened pressure of the playoffs, where Kawhi has been known to always bring his game, this series would be a short one.
The time off from basketball has helped an older Thunder team get healthy, but if they want to win a playoff series they can’t take these eight games lightly.
Hunting a matchup
With the race between three through seven so tight, which matchup would be ideal for Oklahoma City?
As things stand, the Thunder would play the Jazz. In a perfect world, this would be the matchup the Thunder draw. They had split the season series 1-1 apiece. However, the Jazz losing Bojan Bogdanovic to a hand injury gives OKC a slight advantage on the wing, a place where they haven’t had much of an advantage all season.
In the Thunder’s win against the Jazz back in December, Schröder tallied 27 points in 31 minutes. He unlocked something this game, and was getting to his spots all over the floor, carving the Jazz up with his midrange pull ups and fancy finishes.
Paul also averages 20 PPG in the season series against the Jazz, while shooting 46 percent from the floor. The Thunder guards would be able to pick apart Utah’s drop pick and roll coverage scheme that keeps Gobert on the floor.
With Adams contending with Gobert on the glass, this matchup comes away as ideal for the Thunder. It would also make for great TV with a rivalry that has been brewing for years.
The Jazz give the Thunder the best opportunity to reach the second round. Something they haven’t done since their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2016.
What to expect from Orlando
With the NBA’s return, I am expecting things are going to be drastically different. From the expedited eight game close of the regular season, to everything being located in Orlando.
It will be strange to watch a Thunder postseason that doesn’t feature the loudest fans in the league.
It will be strange to see CP3 orchestrate comebacks from a neutral site.
It will be strange to watch a play-in tournament if the race for the eighth seed is close.
And it will be even stranger if the NBA pumps in 2K crowd noise.
But basketball is finally back. For what’s been a terrible 2020 so far, that is one big win.