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Thunder Journal: March Magic Madness

Thunder Journal: March Magic Madness

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Only a dozen games remain on the 2021-2022 Thunder schedule, half the roster is injured and the team is 30 games below .500, but the first of the three most important games of the Thunder season will be played tonight.

OKC is in the middle of a three-team tank tussle with Orlando and Detroit.

The Thunder are 20-50.

The Pistons are 19-52.

The Magic are 18-53.

While fans across the rest of the league might only be checking tonight’s Thunder-Magic boxscore if they have Tre Mann or Franz Wagner on their fantasy teams, the OKC and Orlando faithful know this game has serious draft lottery implications.

More than a win or loss

A Thunder win plus a Magic loss would make it extremely difficult for OKC to jump Orlando in the reverse standings with only 11 games remaining. At that point, it would seem Sam Presti’s ping pong percentages would be locked into a two-team tank toil with the Pistons for the 3 and 4 spots.

But a Thunder loss plus a Magic win would set the table for an exciting race down the stretch for the 2, 3 and 4 lottery positions. Only one win would separate the three teams fighting for the best odds to draft Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr, Jaden Ivey or Paolo Banchero.

The big question whose answer may end up divvying the lottery luck of the three teams is whether or not Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays when OKC plays the Magic and Pistons. With all due respect to Cade Cunningham (who has come on so strong the second half of the season that he’s got Evan Mobley shook) and Wendell Carter, Jr. (who is finally having a breakout year), SGA is the greatest talent among all three rosters. Granted, he’s been surrounded by Darius Bazley, Tre Mann, third stringers and G League players, so the results have mostly been losses. But the combo of SGA and team effort gives you a fighting chance any given night.

Shai has been carrying a questionable tag the past couple games, but ended up playing in both contests. Gotta wonder if he’ll finally sit against a team the Thunder really need to win. The game being on the first night of a back to back gives Oklahoma City a built-in excuse if they want to take it.

Meanwhile, Carter Jr. is back for the Magic after missing a game against, funny enough, the Pistons. And Markelle Fultz, the former #1 overall pick, has been back with Orlando this month and played pretty well. The only impact injury for Orlando may be Jalen Suggs, but even he is listed as questionable.

If you go by recent performances, the Thunder have some reverse momentum. Since the Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Kenrich Williams and Mike Muscala injuries, OKC’s defensive ranking and thus their team record have fallen substantially. But the Magic and Pistons have actually shown some late season signs of life.

OKC has lost 8 in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10 games.

Detroit has lost 1 in a row and are 4-6 in their last 10 games.

Orlando has lost 3 in a row and are 4-6 in their last 10 games.

It seemed impossible a few weeks ago, but the Thunder have a very real shot at overtaking the Pistons or Magic, or both, in the pursuit of ping pong percentages. The head-to-head matchups will go a long way in deciding those lottery odds. That’s why tonight’s game is the most important one of the year.

Until Wednesday night, when the Magic visit Oklahoma City.

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Steve Brings in the Fans

After being one of the league’s most consistent teams in attendance, with sell out after sell out, the COVID pandemic and then the rebuild has led to the worst attendance for the Thunder since the 2008-09 season. To date, average attendance is just 14,737, ranking as the third-worst in the NBA.

But if anything can draw fans back, it’s the return of one of the most beloved players in Thunder history–Steven Adams. In his first game as an opposing player in front of the OKC fans, Adams was given a standing ovation by the 17,482 fans in attendance, the highest of the season.

The warm welcome to Steve continues a trend of both the team and the fans continuing to embrace departed players. It’s one of the best things about the Thunder fan base–the loyalty to players of present and of past.

Though there is one notable exception to this warmth, I hope it’s something that persists. Players come and players go, but I appreciate that Thunder nation recognizes the contributions of the players that pass through the city, and treats them as friends and not villains even when they don the jersey of the opposing team.

John Napier

Weekend Bolts:

It’s March Madness, so here’s a refresher on where the Thunder players went to college (OKC Thunder Wire/USA Today).

Though the losses are piling up (which is good, tbh), Sam Lane (Inside the Thunder/SI) finds a silver lining in the offense for the Thunder. “But through eight games in March, with half of its roster out via injury, the Thunder have found something. Having spent the first five months of the season in either 29th or 30th the Thunder are putting together their highest-scoring month this season (111.8 PPG) to move to 26th with a 109.7 offensive rating. This might not seem like a lot — and for just about any other team it wouldn’t be, it would be a sigh of relief — but for OKC this is a step in the right direction. A direction it desperately needed as the regular season winds down.”

Scott Rafferty (The Sporting News) says that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the NBA’s most underrated players. “Ask 10 people who the most underrated player in the NBA is right now and you might get 10 different answers. It’s a highly subjective question. Does an All-Star selection rule someone out, even if it was a decade ago? What if they start on a title-contender? Does a second-year player qualify? But no matter how you slice it, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in the conversation.”

Reggie Jackson talked to Sam Amick (The Athletic), and dropped a few nuggets about his time in OKC (h/t: Dom Flaim).  On his relationship with Russell Westbrook: “… I had a great time when I was in OKC. Russ was my biggest advocate. … I know when people (talk about) the ‘SPG’ thing, or things like that — I just wish we had dealt (with things) better as a team, as an organization. I thought we were highly talented. … It was just frustrating.”