Flashbulb: Coming Back in Chicago
Snapshot moments, the NBA has them yearly. the games you can remember where you were while watching them, and the emotions that arose because of what was happening to your favorite team. One of these moments for the 2019-20 OKC Thunder came in the form of a regular season game against the Chicago Bulls.
The Thunder came into the game with a record of 11-14. This wasn’t unusual for Thunder teams; they always tend to start the year slow and build towards a crescendo of fun, winning basketball right around the All-Star break. However, this team was different. It didn’t have its old leader in Russell Westbrook. Sam Presti had traded him for an aging Chris Paul, and because of all the offseason changes OKC had no identity early on.
This seemingly meaningless regular season game against the Bulls would be the moment the script for this team would flip.
The game felt like one the Thunder couldn’t drop. But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul struggled to contain Zach LaVine early, and after the first 12 minutes of action things didn’t look good for OKC. The Bulls were already up 37-16. The offense seemed to find some sort of rhythm in the second quarter, but still the early Chicago onslaught gave the Bulls a comfortable lead at the midway point.
At the half: Chicago 68, Oklahoma City 49.
The third quarter was much of the same. OKC struggled to stop LaVine, as he would score 12 of his 39 in the frame. The game seemed all but lost.
Then something happened. An aging Chris Paul, who many had written off, simply decided the Thunder were not going to lose this game.
In the fourth, he provided a dazzling display of what he is still capable of. Playing the entire 12 minutes, he knocked down 5 threes, grabbed 5 rebounds, dished out 2 assists and tallied 19 points. He would finish the final frame with a +11 plus-minus, and the Thunder would outscore the Bulls 27 to 16 in the quarter.
This win signaled a turning point for the Thunder. This season wasn’t going to be a mail-in season, but instead a season of proving everyone wrong.
No one in the national media, aside from Kendrick Perkins, picked the Thunder to be a playoff team. In their preseason assessments they forgot just one thing: Chris Paul is a consistent winner. This game embodied that. At 34 years old, he gave his all to beat the Chicago Bulls on a Monday night in December when many stars would have taken the night off. This performance would catapult the Thunder into a 10 game stretch where the team would go 8-2, rising back into playoff contention.
Looking back on this game with hindsight’s 20/20 vision, you can see that in this moment a new Thunder identity was born. A feature of that new identity: never giving up, even when no one believes that you can still compete. A mantra that is linked to the team’s best player, CP3.
There is a reason people started calling them the comeback kids.