Aug 1, 2020 6:55 PM ET
In its first game back since early March, the Thunder started things off with a bang in a runaway 16-point victory over the Jazz. Active defense, good decisions on offense and a collective effort helped get the Thunder’s eight-game regular season started on the right foot.
Set against a new backdrop inside of the NBA’s campus in Orlando, the Thunder faced off against the Utah Jazz in a game that was originally slated to take place 143 days ago. Since that night on March 11, the NBA has navigated a global pandemic and a national fight for social justice and racial equality. For that reason, the opening scene of the Thunder’s first game was inside of The Arena at Disney’s Wide World of Sports with a front and center view of Black Lives Matter across the court and every player and coach locking arms as OKC fan favorite, Rob Clay sang the national anthem.
“Oh man, it was special to be able to do that together as a team and to do it right down in front of Black Lives Matter as players,” said Thunder point guard and NBPA president Chris Paul. “We had a lot of conversations about coming down here and the bigger reason of what we were playing for so to do it as a united front was nice.”
“I think being fortunate enough and blessed enough to be involved in the game of basketball, you see all sorts of different kinds of diversity, but you also see a lot of the social injustice that takes place in a lot of guys lives,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “We just want to be behind these guys in terms of constantly fighting for equality all the way around.”
Coach Donovan’s pride in his team continued as the ball was tipped to start the game. Right out of the gates, the Thunder got off to a strong start defensively. Against Utah guards like Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, the Thunder perimeter defenders showed relentless pursuit and activity while fighting over screens set by the towering presence of Rudy Gobert. As a result, Mitchell was limited to nine points in the first half on 3-of-10 from the field (0-3 3PT).
On the offensive side of the ball, Gobert, who is affectionately known as the Stifle Tower for his dominating defensive presence around the rim, proved to be no match for the Thunder’s slashers on the perimeter. With methodical patience and savvy Thunder guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19 points), Chris Paul (18 points), and Dennis Schröder (13 points) found creases and angles in the Jazz’s defense and made strong finishes at the rim out of pick and roll actions.
“I think our guards made a lot of really, really good decisions when they got in [the paint],” said Donovan. “I thought we had a really nice blend of those guys playing pick and roll very well together both the guards and the bigs.”
The contributions continued with young players like Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley showcasing tremendous carryover from the Thunder’s first three scrimmages. The two combined for 19 points and a collective 2-5 from the 3-point line while snatching 11 rebounds. However, it was their discipline to keep the defensive energy level high in the second half and stay clean on drives by Utah’s Jordan Clarkson that proved their hard work over the four-month hiatus was paying off in the Thunder’s meaningful games.
“We were really up and down [in the second half]. We had some really good moments and some moments that weren't so great and I thought Hami and Darius coming off the bench gave us a really, really good boost,” said Donovan.
By the fourth quarter, the Thunder had all but put a bow on the game. Both coaches went to their reserves and it was then that Chris Paul took a brief moment to look around and take in all that the NBA had done to make this moment possible. On one of the 10 video boards surrounding the court, Paul caught the sight of a familiar face among the virtual fans in attendance. It was his wife who was there along with his son, Little Chris to support his dad from thousands of miles away. “It’s unbelievable,” said Paul. “A lot of guys here are away from their families, so just to get a glimpse to see them, even though I didn't pay attention to them at all until the game was about to end because I'm locked into the game, but in the fourth quarter when I looked up there and I saw my wife, it was pretty special.”
The Thunder’s first quarter punch set the tone for the remaining three stanzas. After 12 minutes, the Thunder outscored the Jazz 29-15, putting an wide, early margin between it and the Jazz. That buffer came in handy during a third quarter lull for OKC where the Jazz went on a 13-3 run tried to throw a wrench in the Thunder’s offense with a zone. It wasn’t enough to make any threatening dent into OKC’s lead.
“The first half, I was really pleased I thought we did a nice job. I thought we played with really good energy we played together on both ends of the floor,” said Donovan. “I thought we got stagnant a little bit in the second half. I thought some of the turnovers led to some fastbreak run outs for them. But overall I thought our guys did a really good job and played well.”
Steven Adams and Chris Paul connected on the pick and roll in beautiful harmony on two straight possessions. The first one resulted in an easy, uncontested dunk by Adams with no defenders in the same area code. The second time, Utah’s Mitchell learned from the previous play and rotated to the middle of the lane in position to take a charge as Adams caught the pass. However, by rotating to the paint, he opened up a lane for his man Luguentz Dort to sneak in behind him. Adams quickly tossed the ball to Dort in stride, avoided a charge and connected with the rookie for a two-handed slam.
“I was hoping that he'll dunk it because he usually jumps really high and just goes for like a real hard layup, but I didn't actually say because I was trying to avoid the whole charge situation,” Adams laughed.
The Thunder’s early defensive activity held Utah to only 15 first quarter points which marks the fewest points allowed by OKC in a first quarter this season. A major factor in that statistic was the persistence and activity of the Thunder guards chasing over Utah’s ball screens all while staying clean defensively.
“It takes up a lot of persistency to kind of fight over those screens and I thought our guards fought really, really well.”
“When you talk about that big gap we've had since March, to see how much better we've gotten as a team… it almost gives you gives you goosebumps just because you know how much work guys have put in and to see it coming to fruition in the game is special.”
“Overall for the first game coming off of such a long layoff, our guys did a really nice job tonight I get given them a lot of credit.”
The Thunder’s next test will be against another Northwest Division foe in the Denver Nuggets. OKC is the only team in the Northwest Division to beat Denver so far this season. The game is slated for Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. CT and will be aired on FOX Sports Oklahoma.