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Playoff-positioned Thunder persevering after losing two All-Stars

As Russell Westbrook returns to OKC, his former team remains in good shape

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

> Tonight on TNT: Rockets vs. Thunder (9:30 ET)

Surely, he’d answered the question dozens of times since the start of the season.

But this time, coach Billy Donovan’s response hit differently.

Explaining how the Thunder have successfully navigated losing a pair of NBA All-Stars over the summer in Paul George and Russell Westbrook — who returns to Chesapeake Energy Arena tonight for the first since being traded to the Houston Rockets — Donovan incisively invoked the “L” word.

That’s right. “Legacy.”

“I say this, and I really believe this: I think that you always remember who you play with,” Donovan said. “Whether there’s rumors out there or [questions of whether] guys are gonna be going here or there, it doesn’t make a difference. Any time you’re spending time with somebody for a significant time, those relationships to me are really where your legacy comes from.”

So far, the Thunder have performed that task masterfully to remain in playoff contention in the Western Conference, despite gaping holes left by the departures of George and Westbrook.

The Thunder ran off an 11-4 record in December, earning Donovan NBA Western Conference Coach of the Month, and have won 10 of their last 12 games.

Oklahoma City’s current run seemed improbable over the summer when it traded George, a six-time All-Star to the LA Clippers in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and the Clippers’ first-round picks in 2022, 2024, and 2026, along with two first-round selections via Miami (2021 and 2023), in addition to the right to swap first-round picks in 2023 and 2025.

The waters sloshed into murkier territory less than a week after the George trade became official, when reports surfaced about the Thunder moving the face of the franchise in Westbrook, an eight-time All-Star and 2016-17 Kia NBA Most Valuable Player, to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul, two protected first-round picks and other draft considerations.

“Everything happened so quick once the Paul [George] trade happened,” Westbrook said back in October. “After that, obviously [there was] speculation and figuring out what’s best for me, for the Thunder and figuring out what their plans were.”

Thunder general manager Sam Presti outlined where the team was headed in a July letter to OKC fans published by The Oklahoman.

“This summer, the story of the Oklahoma City Thunder is transitioning to a new phase,” Presti wrote. “Over the last few weeks, we have parted ways with foundational players — people who have represented our city to the world, who have sacrificed for us and flourished on our behalf. Although this has been painful, I also believe that — given the circumstances — it was necessary. In saying goodbye to the past, we have begun to chart the future. The next great Thunder team is out there somewhere, but it will take time to seize and discipline to ultimately sustain.”

The current incarnation of the Thunder (21-16) certainly seems to be on the way. They reside at No. 7 in the Western Conference standings with a sizeable lead over the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs (16-20), and they’ve gotten it done with five players averaging double figures in scoring in Gilgeous-Alexander (19.8), Dennis Schroder (18.5), Gallinari (18.0), Paul (16.6) and Steven Adams (11.9).

The DNA of this current Oklahoma City squad also seems to be embedded with the clutch gene, too. The Thunder held a record of 22-24 last season in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, which ranked 16th in the NBA. They have finished games stronger this season by owning a 13-3 record since Nov. 25 in that area.

In fact, the Thunder have five of the top 10 leaders in clutch plus-minus rating in Gilgeous-Alexander, Adams, Schroder, Paul and Gallinari. Paul, who has served this season as the consummate veteran leader for the young Thunder, leads all players with 103 clutch points on the season, while Gilgeous-Alexander (65) ranks in the top 10. Both guards are helping on the other end late in games with their 13 total clutch-time steals. Gallinari is tied for the second-most clutch 3-pointers (10), and Adams is tied for the second-most clutch rebounds (28).

As a team, Oklahoma City’s 286 clutch points ranks as the most in the NBA.

“We have so many weapons on the court towards the end of the game,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, after scoring 15 of his 25 points in the third quarter of a 109-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 2 in which the Thunder rallied back from a 14-point deficit.

The win marked Oklahoma City’s first in San Antonio during the regular season since Christmas of 2014.

“Teams can’t really load up and they can’t take certain things away from us, because it leads to other things for us,” Gilgeous-Alexander added. “We have been in this situation a lot this year and we’re just getting better at it.”

They’ve certainly proven as much.

Oklahoma City outscored the Chicago Bulls 60-38 in the second half on Dec. 16 to overcome a 26-point deficit on the way to a 109-106 win. The club followed up on that the very next game with a 24-point comeback victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, which made Oklahoma City the only team in the last 20 years to rally back from back-to-back deficits of 24 points or more.

Fast forward two games to Dec. 22, and the Thunder rallied from 18 down to stun the LA Clippers.

The Thunder are currently tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most 15-point comeback wins this season (four).

Paul characterized that “as sort of the story of our team,” while Gilgeous-Alexander mentioned the team’s mentality in clutch situations is to “just focus on what we need to do. If at the end of the day, they make every shot and we don’t make every shot, they’ll still win no matter what. You’ve just got to trust the game and trust the work.”

So far, that’s proven to be a formula for success.

When Westbrook returns to Chesapeake Energy Arena tonight in a Houston Rockets uniform, he’s playing against a tough and gritty unit. He can expect a loud standing ovation from the home crowd. His former teammate George received an ovation on Dec. 22 when he came back to Oklahoma City last month, but Westbrook’s reception will certainly be of higher volume.

As a result of the Westbrook and George transactions, the Thunder own a stockpile of assets that make the future bright in Oklahoma City. The Thunder now hold a total of eight first-round draft picks over the next seven years, not to mention the club’s own picks. Oklahoma City can also swap the least favorable of some of its own picks with Miami, Houston and the LA Clippers.

It’s also worth noting that other franchises continued runs of success after trading multiple All-Stars. So this isn’t uncharted territory.

Over a span of seven months from June of 2017 and January of 2018, the Clippers traded away both Paul and Blake Griffin, and embarked the next season on a playoff run. In 2011, the Denver Nuggets traded away Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks and ended up in the playoffs the next season.

“The group’s been really resilient and works hard,” Donovan said. “All these guys are really professional. It’s their job to come in here and do their work. Because it is a team, the importance of the relationships that are established inside the group are important. For us, there’s nine new guys. So, it took a while to get to know each other, play with each other. It takes a lot of communication, a lot of work.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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