What A Season Means
A SINGLE TEAR ESCAPED from the corner of a reddened eye and rolled slowly down the cheek of a man who is built like a brick house. Thoughts flooded through the 21-year-old’s mind, rewinding past March 11, past his crunch-time steal in a December win over Minnesota at home.
Luguentz Dort, the Thunder guard who transformed himself from an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract into a nightly starter for a playoff team, was processing in real time the journey of the past 14 months of his life.
In a Game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, Dort scored 30 points, a record for any undrafted rookie in NBA history, as well as a Thunder rookie playoff record. While his phone was lighting up, unanswered, on Wednesday night down in the bubble in Orlando, Dort couldn’t help but think of where he was back on June 20, 2019, when a phone call during the NBA Draft was the only thing in the world he wanted.
“It was tough going undrafted. This team just give me a lot of confidence,” Dort said, choking out the words while clenching in the emotions. “The vets, Chris (Paul), Dennis (Schröder), (Danilo) Gallo (Gallinari), Steve-o (Adams), Coach Billy (Donovan), Sam (Presti), just gave me a lot of confidence and they really trusted me. It's a blessing just to be here, coming from Montreal and being here with all these guys.”
For the full Thunder roster, this season began 340 days ago, on Sept. 30, when the team assembled for training camp. There were eight new players in the locker room and a clear directive from General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti that the Thunder organization was pivoting in its direction.
With a pair of blockbuster offseason trades, the Thunder stocked its war chest with draft assets and loaded up on young players like Dort, second-year star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and rookie forward Darius Bazley, a relatively unknown prospect who took an unconventional route to the league.
Through the two trades, the Thunder also brought in a pair of veterans to put alongside crucial team cogs Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder. Those acquisitions were Danilo Gallinari, a longtime NBA three-point marksman, and future Hall of Fame point guard and current president of the NBA Players’ Association, Chris Paul.
Even with uncertainty about what might be in store for the organization during the season, be it potential trades, rotation changes or playing-time discussions, Presti, Head Coach Billy Donovan and Paul helped set the tone that there would be clarity in communication from the start. No secrets or hidden agendas, just straight-talk.
In a situation like this one, in other organizations with different human beings involved, it would have been very easy for things to get competitive or awkward. Paul is ultra-famous, has relationships with people like Disney CEO Bob Iger and stars in commercials on national television. Schröder, in the prime of his career, is a starting-caliber player who was asked to come off the bench the previous year. Gilgeous-Alexander was the prized young player in the team’s trade with the LA Clippers, expected to be a major fixture in the team’s long-term planning. As people and players, they had different approaches and experience but they had one thing in common: they’re all point guards.
Instead of allowing a fraught competition for playing time and potentially pitting players against one another, Donovan was clear that this Thunder team could thrive with at least two and sometimes all three floor generals on the court at the same time.
Rather than keeping Schröder and Gilgeous-Alexander at arm’s length, Paul pulled them into his circle. Gilgeous-Alexander stuck to Paul’s side throughout the year, soaking up everything CP3 threw his way and tossing back a few zingers as he and his mentor bantered. Paul and Schröder connected on a competitive level. An internal fire that alights in the heat of battle rages inside both men and they found themselves kindred spirits in crunch time.
The aforementioned night Dort dove on the ball to regain possession for the Thunder against the Timberwolves was the game that served as the turning point for the Thunder this year. Adams hoisted a pass some 85 feet, dropping the ball into a precise location for Schröder to snare and score at the buzzer to send the game to overtime and initiate the team’s season-long clutch-time magic.
Paul and Schröder seemed to alternate their late-game scoring binges from December through March, helping the Thunder go 34-13 after a 6-11 start with 30 clutch-time wins during the regular season. The scoring was done by committee, the defense relied on communication and the Thunder was never out of a game. Donovan won Coach of the Month in December.
The Thunder set an OKC record for consecutive road wins (9) and had the second-best record in the league (24-9) between Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday. As the months rolled on, a team that outside prognosticators deemed destined for the bottom of the West skyrocketed up the standings, settling itself firmly in the playoff picture.
Despite the pressures of leading the Thunder to victory, having his family in California and the responsibility of his position at the Players’ Association on his shoulders, Paul also made time for the entire group. He bought the team custom-tailored suits to all wear together on a night when they would erase a 24-point deficit to defeat Memphis.
In January, Paul rallied a group of teammates together to attend an NFL playoff game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks during an off day on the road. Throughout the year, Paul headlined a string of players who spent their precious down time sitting courtside at OKC Blue games, supporting youngsters competing in the G League.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Paul was on the front lines of negotiating a way to get NBA basketball back and playing again as he helped to architect the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort. After the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the nation was thrust into a significant discussion regarding racial injustice and police brutality aimed at Black Americans. Paul and his Thunder teammates chose to spend weeks away from their families and communities in the bubble to use the NBA platform to address that conversation, aiming for social good.
That meant, however, trying to explain extremely heavy topics over FaceTime to their children. On the busses, in the lobby, in the meal room and on the way to the locker room, players with families spread across the globe were constantly on FaceTime. Fellow teammates tried to stay connected the friends and family as well, mentally escaping the confines of their hotel rooms. Sometimes those calls were just to hang out and spend time together, with no words exchanged.
After the shooting of Jacob Blake in late August and the postponement of playoff games, it was Paul, with the rookie Bazley attached to his hip, who helped unite the players in the bubble. He leveraged relationships with Commissioner Adam Silver to ask NBA organizations for their help with local voting enfranchisement initiatives and to get the playoffs back on track.
Based on Paul’s past 12 months, it’s hard to imagine that anyone cares more about NBA basketball, about the Thunder, about creating equality in this country and about their family more than Paul. With the support of his teammates, he exerted all of his energy into shouldering as much responsibility as he could to help all of those institutions become their best selves.
In a playoff series against Houston that was full of heart and raw emotion, the Thunder rallied back from an 0-2 series hole and a 3-2 series deficit, shaking off 3-point downpours by playing with poise and composure. Gilgeous-Alexander, at 22 years old, nailed a last-second 3-pointer to force overtime in Game 3. Schröder converted a crucial layup to seal a Game 4 win. Paul drained two 3-pointers, made two steals and made two go-ahead free throws to complete a Game 6 comeback.
OKC earned the right to play in a Game 7, coming up a bucket and a stop short of persevering its way into round two.
“We fought hard all year. Obviously, a lot of people doubted us, but we didn't doubt ourselves,” said Paul, his head hanging down and voice quavering. “We didn't give a damn about anybody's predictions going into any series, in any game. We expected to win, and that's the way we played all season long. Every game, we expected to win.”
Thunder PG speaks with the media after the Game 7 loss to Houston. pic.twitter.com/lBakrg44Fi— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) September 3, 2020
Just like these Thunder players, OKC fans know that this feeling in the lingering days after tough playoff losses are a massive part of the NBA experience. For months on end from October through the spring, teams and their players scratch, claw, bleed and sacrifice just for the privilege to be stung like this. For 29 teams, the season ends with a loss. For 15, it concludes with a playoff loss and for even fewer squads, the year comes to a terrible, screeching halt like it did on Wednesday night for the Thunder in its 104-102 Game 7 loss.
The non-playoff teams and the ones who get ousted early don’t feel quite this same wound. Even with as badly as it hurts, they likely wish they did. Feeling the sharp bite of a missed opportunity is the sign of a team with greatness inside it.
Nearly 12 years ago to the day, on Sept. 3, 2008, the Thunder logo was officially unveiled at Leadership Square in downtown Oklahoma City. Over the past 12 seasons, an NBA journey that began with a newcomer Thunder squad starting 3-29 has turned into a run of postseason berths in 10 of those dozen years. Each postseason exit, be it in the first round like this one or in the NBA Finals in 2012, has been a shared scar for the team and the city.
Those gashes double as badges of honor, however, to be worn proudly as a memory of another season filled with true meaning. The key for fans of any city, but particularly a place like OKC that has embraced this Thunder squad so deeply over the past dozen years, is to feel in their hearts that the players and coaches they cheer on from their homes or at Chesapeake Energy Arena care just as much or more as they do.
In the early morning hours on Thursday inside the Orlando bubble, Paul was still awake, just like the Thunder fans in Oklahoma City who were laying on their backs, staring at the ceiling, unable to put Game 7 out of their minds. Paul sought out a couple of Thunder staffers and told them he wanted to record a message thanking Oklahoma City and its fans for all of their support over the course of the year. This was a man who had already heaped an immense amount of responsibility on his plate and was one short night away from getting to reunite with his family after eight weeks apart.
Instead, on the top of Paul’s mind were the people in Oklahoma and around the world who support him and his teammates through thrilling wins like in Monday’s Game 6 and numbing defeats like Wednesday’s Game 7.
What Thunder fans have witnessed over the past 48 hours, the 57 days the traveling party spent in the bubble and the 340 days of this season is proof positive that these players truly loved being in Oklahoma City this year. They cherished being a part of this Thunder team.
“I’ve made some connections and bonds with these guys that will last a lifetime,” Paul said.
Fans in OKC have, too.
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