The 2019-20 NBA season went on hiatus on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The season will return on July 30 and NBA.com‘s writers are taking an updated look at each of the league’s 30 teams.
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Record: 40-24, No. 5 in Western Conference
Season summary: After trading both Paul George and Russell Westbrook last summer, the Thunder were seemingly on their way to a full-scale rebuild. As of Thanksgiving, they were 6-11 and in 11th place in the Western Conference. But a home-and-home sweep of the New Orleans Pelicans, in which the Thunder twice erased fourth-quarter deficits and got go-ahead buckets from Chris Paul, was the start of a turnaround. Only the Bucks (38-9) and the Lakers (33-12) have been better than Oklahoma City (34-13) since Thanksgiving, and Paul coming up clutch was a sign of things to come. In his 15th season, the OKC point guard has been the league’s leading clutch scorer and, since Thanksgiving week, the Thunder are an amazing (and league-best) 25-5 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Paul should be on some Kia MVP ballots, Dennis Schroder is the leading candidate for Kia Sixth Man of the Year and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a future star. And when the three have played together, the Thunder have outscored their opponents by almost 30 points per 100 possessions. They were neither buyers or sellers at the trade deadline, and when the league suspended the season, the Thunder had climbed into fifth place in the West, just a game behind the fourth-place Utah Jazz.
Breakout player: The second-year guard Gilgeous-Alexander, who was acquired from the Clippers in the George trade, looks like a future All-Star. He has averaged 19.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, up from 10.8 and 2.8 last season. The rebounds jump (3.3 per game) is the biggest among 234 players who have played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons, and the points jump (8.5 per game) is the third biggest among that same group of players. Under the tutelage of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander plays in control, but has the ability to get to the rim almost at will. Playing more than 97% of his minutes alongside either Paul or Schroder, he hasn’t had to be much of a playmaker. But Paul hasn’t hesitated to, at times, hand the keys over to the 21 year old. The highlights of Gilgeous-Alexander’s breakout season include a 20-20-10 triple-double in Minnesota on Jan. 13 and a game-winner in Toronto on Dec. 29 that capped a five-game stretch in which he averaged 28.8 points.
Statement win: In the second game of a back-to-back for Houston, Westbrook had rested the night before (in Atlanta) so he could play in his first game in Oklahoma City after 11 seasons with the Thunder on Jan. 9. Unfortunately for Houston, Westbrook was the only Rocket that didn’t struggle. In a matchup between teams that were a combined 18-4 over the previous 3 1/2 weeks, the Thunder took control with an extended, 28-7 run in the first quarter. They led by 16 after the first 12 minutes, by 22 after the third quarter, and by as many as 30 in the fourth. The Thunder offense was balanced, with five guys scoring between 15 and 23 points. On the other end of the floor, with Westbrook’s teammates shooting 32%, the Rockets’ second-ranked offense scored just 92 points on 100 possessions, their second worst offensive performance of the season. The Thunder have the worst record (9-17) in games played between the 13 teams that went into the hiatus over .500. But their 2-1 record against the Rockets is the reason they have the tiebreaker for the fifth seed in the West.
Most compelling game: The Thunder have played a league-high 42 games that were within five points in the last five minutes, and none was more exciting than their last game before the hiatus, which came on March 8. The Celtics led by 18 points late in the second quarter, but it was a one-point game at the start of the fourth and the teams traded leads more than 10 times over the final 12 minutes. After Jayson Tatum put the Celtics up one on a fast-break attack, he fouled Steven Adams with 28.4 seconds left. Adams missed both free throws and, after sneaking into the paint to rebound the second one, Paul missed a tough shot in the paint, with the rebound going out of bounds off the Thunder. The Celtics could have used a timeout to advance the ball, but they inbounded to Kemba Walker in the backcourt. He was expecting to get fouled, but instead, Paul cut him off and Schroder came with a double-team. He stole the ball, spun, and laid it in to put the Thunder ahead with 8.5 seconds left. Paul then forced Tatum into a tough turnaround jumper that fell short as time expired. The Thunder somehow won a game in which they were outscored by 18 points in the paint and by another nine points from 3-point range. With Gilgeous-Alexander missing a game for the first time in his career, Paul and Schroder combined for 55 points, shooting 12-for-22 from mid-range.
Memorable moments: Westbrook’s wasn’t the only return to OKC that the Thunder spoiled. Paul George also got handed an L on Dec. 22 when he came back with the Clippers just before Christmas. The Clippers led by as many as 18 points and were up four with less than four minutes to go. But the Thunder then went on a 16-4 run (with Schroder scoring 12 of the 16 points) in a little more than three minutes to pick up their fourth straight win. Gilgeous-Alexander, the main component of the trade that sent George to LA, led all scorers with 32 points. … In another big moment, the Thunder found themselves down 26 on Dec. 16 vs. Chicago. The Thunder came all the way back and took a four-point lead. But after Zach LaVine tied the game, they needed Steven Adams to make a free throw with 4.3 seconds left. He managed to bank in the first of two and rebound the second to seal the win. And when he was asked about the free throws after the game, Adams had a frank admission. “I absolutely s— my pants,” he said. …
With the Wolves up two with 1.1 seconds left in Oklahoma City on Dec. 6, Karl-Anthony Towns was at the line for a pair of free throws. After he missed the first, Wolves forward Jordan Bell checked into the game with his jersey untucked. Paul pointed out the delay-of-game violation and, because the Wolves had been warned for a previous delay of game, the result was a technical foul. Gallinari made the technical free throw, but Towns made the second of his two to make it a two-point game again, and the Thunder still needed a miracle to go the length of the floor with 1.1 seconds left. Adams took care of that, heaving a full-court pass to Schroder, who scored at the buzzer to send the game to overtime, where the Thunder outscored the Wolves, 17-5.
Team MVP: It’s not clear how long Paul’s stay in Oklahoma City will last, but he’s made the most of it thus far. It’s been his healthiest season (he’s played in 63 of the Thunder’s 64 games) in five years. And it’s been the second most efficient scoring season (true shooting percentage of 60.9%) of his career. He’s allowed Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroder to do their thing, but has been the man down the stretch of close games. He leads the league with 144 points scored in the clutch (with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime), having shot 46-for-86 (53.5%) on clutch shots, the fourth best mark among 28 players who have attempted at least 50. That includes a pretty incredible 17-for-27 (63%) from mid-range, and Paul has also shot 43-for-46 (93%) on clutch free throws, the best mark among 32 players who have attempted at least 25. Overall, the Thunder have been 12.2 points per 100 possessions better with Paul on the floor (+6.8) than with him off the floor (-5.4). That’s the second biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential among 218 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team. He even dunked in the All-Star Game.
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