Well, bubble life is in full effect, and JR Smith can’t seem to stop live-streaming everything.
From the menu to the entertainment, NBA players seem to be adjusting to the new life within the bubble. My personal favorite has been Darius Bazley. He now takes the mantel as the funniest Thunder player in Thunder history–totally not recency bias, see for yourself:
If that’s not enough to convince you, there is more:
All of this un/intentional comedy, featuring our Thunder favorites, led me to question: in a world where the NBA is played in this bubble, and there is no COVID-19 outbreak, what would be the Thunder’s best-case scenario? So, I have constructed a fictitious world, where everything that can go right for the Thunder will go right. Here’s how OKC will complete that season.
The Bubble Begins
Now in our fictitious experiment, the Thunder players are all in the peak shape of their career. Steven Adams has no nagging injuries, Chris Paul’s hamstrings are in tip-top shape. Andre Roberson is back to 100 percent, and is playing like his 2016 self. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is still…SGA.
With a completely healthy roster, the Thunder would blow through the first game on the schedule. The Jazz get tossed to the wayside because Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell can’t seem to stop arguing on the court. The Thunder take advantage of their lack of continuity, and dispatch them in a rout.
The Nuggets face the same fate, as skinny Jokic doesn’t carry the same bruising game that chubby Jokic could. Adams completely overpowers him all night, as Chris Paul throws lobs right over the woeful Nuggets defense.
Now here come the Lakers, and though in real life they have been a thorn in the Thunder’s side, in this world they aren’t. The game against the King and Co., is close, but a healthy Bazley makes the difference. His energy off the bench gives the Thunder a new life late, and Paul then closes the deal on a mid-range jumper. The Thunder move to 3-0.
The Grizzlies may have Ja Morant, but they are still just not good enough to touch the Paul-led Thunder. SGA shows out, and Jonas Valanciunas gets a great lesson from Steven Adams on how to play basketball. With a 4-0 record, the Thunder are riding high on momentum.
Bend don’t burst: the back half of the regular season
And then things stall. Now even in our fictitious scenario teams have missteps. With the Thunder, that is no different. Without Bradly Beal, the Wizards look dead in the water. And this causes the Thunder to take their foot off the gas paddle. The mental mishaps lead to an early deficit that the Thunder can’t climb out of. And the Wizards, of all teams, hand the Thunder their first loss in Orlando.
The next game is one that the Thunder can’t lose. The team, upset about dropping an easy game to the Wizards, takes all its anger out on the lowly Suns. Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, and Deandre Ayton give it their best shot, but they are no match for the ultra-aggressive Thunder. They become just a footnote to the team’s march into the postseason. The team now sits at 5-1 in bubble play.
The Miami Heat represent continuity, culture, and a winning environment. Led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat make a formidable opponent for the Thunder. Yet, Butler’s 3 am workout routine still isn’t enough to overcome a surging OKC side. The Thunder dispatch them in a close game that sees CP3 dish and swish his way into another stellar fourth-quarter comeback. The Thunder: 6-1.
Closing out the regular season for the Thunder is a game against the Clippers. They represent everything the Thunder aren’t–large market, no fan base, and little brother to the bigger local team. And with both teams primed for a playoff push, they choose to rest some of their big minutes guys. Without CP3 for the Thunder or Kawhi Leonard for the Clippers the game becomes a dump. And the outcome represents that, as the Thunder drops its last game of the season in a blowout. At the end of the team’s eight-game slate, they finish 6-2, with big wins over conference rivals. They find themselves sitting pretty with the third seed in the Western Conference. The Thunder fans are screaming at anyone who will listen, “rebuilding who?”
The Postseason Scares
Playoff basketball has reared its ugly head, again, for the Thunder. And thankfully, with the overhaul of the roster, things are finally different.
The Jazz stumble
Opposed to the last three seasons, the Thunder didn’t sputter into the playoffs–they marched there. And with the third seed, they get the privilege of playing a struggling Utah team that hasn’t managed to string together consecutive wins since entering the bubble.
The series against the Jazz is a chance at revenge for what Donovan Mitchell did in 2018. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and that is exactly what happens to Utah’s perimeter shooting in this series. With the lack of floor spacing, the driving lanes for Mitchell close up. He has the worst playoff series of his career, and the Thunder thwart the Jazz in five games.
The Clippers are always the little brother
Along with a favorable first-round matchup, the three seed gave the Thunder an easier path to the conference finals. In the second round the team matchups up against the second-seeded Clippers.
Now, we know as Thunder fans that Paul George often fades as the playoff spotlight intensifies. The Clippers don’t know that, yet. In this series, George struggles offensively.
The Clippers haven’t played many games with their core five guys, and the season was cut short just as all of them started playing well together. The Thunder have an advantage in that regard. They’ve played a lot of basketball together, and this continuity helps them as they dive deeper into the postseason.
Each team trades wins for six games, leading to a Game 7 to head to the Conference Finals. The Lakers are waiting, and the NBA world has already penciled in a Clippers vs. Lakers series. Thunder faithful know that Paul, Adams, Dennis Schröder, and SGA won’t let that happen. The deciding game comes down to one play. With the score tied, and Paul with the ball, he goes to his patented mid-range jump shot. The shot goes in, just as the buzzer sounds. The Thunder are headed to the conference finals.
Here comes big brother
Big brother never lets anyone pick on little brother without giving them a taste of their own medicine. With the Lakers, it’s no different. Even in the Thunder’s dream best-case scenario, it’s difficult to imagine this Thunder team beating the Lakers four times in seven games.
The Thunder veterans manage to push the series to seven games, but an immaculate LeBron James performance dismantles any hope of an OKC Finals appearance. Even in my wildest fiction, the Lakers are still an amazing ball club–too amazing for Oklahoma City to overcome.
If the Thunder appear in the Conference Finals, let along push it to a Game 7, I think that is grounds for a championship parade in Oklahoma City. Although it is very unlikely, if everything can bounce just right…that Western Conference sky is the limit for this team.
However it plays out, in the end, I’m just happy to have Thunder basketball back.