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For the first time since March 11, 2020, OKC fans were in attendance Sunday night for a regular season game to cheer on their Thunder. A few things have changed in the 592 days since that infamous Thunder vs. Jazz game that wasn’t a game.
The Peake is now the Paycom Center. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, Mike Muscala and Isaiah Roby are the only players remaining on the roster. Bye Bye Billy, Oh Hi Mark. Dort became a local urban legend. SGA became a star. Poku became a meme.
And no, the arena wasn’t filled with 18,203 screaming Thunder fanatics like it was in the Peake primes of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Daequan Cook. Crowd expectations should be reset in a rebuilding/COVID season. But the 10,000 or so (I’m terrible at the ‘guess how many jelly beans are in this jar’ game, so take my guess with a grain of salt) in attendance were passionate and loud for the young and rebuilding home team.
Of course, it helped that the Thunder gave them something to cheer for against former Russ rival Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike the first two road games against the Jazz and Rockets, OKC’s home opener was an exciting, competitive game. And most importantly, the players the team and fans are most invested in looked the part of a promising, talented core trio.
Some fans and analysts started to wonder if maybe SGA was overrated after his first two games in which he struggled to score efficiently. That was the kneejerkiest of takes. Shai shredded the 76ers, including all-world defender Matisse Thybulle, for 29 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists. Just like he did all last season, SGA looked like an All Star.
Lu Dort sparked a late Thunder run when he terrorized poor Furkan Korkmaz on back to back possessions, leading to two strips, two Dort floor dives, a jump ball and a steal. Dort’s defense, energy, hustle and heart got the crowd’s biggest reaction of the night, even moreso than when Thunder superfans Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha were shown on the jumbotron.
Actually, I take that back. Loudest City was absolutely following a 15 second sequence in which 19-year-old rookie Josh Giddey got hammered at the rim by Embiid, came up holding his leg, looked at Daigneault to say “all good”, drilled two free throws, stole the ball away from Embiid and drilled a 3. The Melbourne Magician (credit: clever people on Twitter) has played 34 minutes in front of an Oklahoma City crowd and he’s already a fan favorite. It was an incredible home debut for the #6 overall pick: 19 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals. He’s the second player 19 years old or younger to achieve that statline. The other? LeBron James.
The Thunder got a loss in the standings, but this season’s (moral) victories will be measured by the progress of SGA, Dort, Giddey, and to a lesser extent Poku, Bazley, Tre Mann, Theo Maledon, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Ty Jerome, et al. And from perspective, the season home opener was a big win.
The name on the side of the building, the name of the man patrolling the sideline and the names on the back of the jerseys may have all changed. But even in a double-digit season opening loss in a COVID/rebuilding season, Thunder fans earned the right to keep their name.
Welcome back, Loud City.