The Thunder’s first round playoff matchup is locked in. It’ll be a series that starts next week against the Rockets, in which Oklahoma City and Houston will represent either the fourth or fifth seeds in the Western Conference.
However, in Orlando’s bubble, there’s still one game to be played for the Thunder and a weekend of practice, film study and rhythm building to be continued for Head Coach Billy Donovan’s crew before the playoffs begin.
Every minute of game action and each moment on the practice floor has been and will continue to be precious to the Thunder, and it showed in Wednesday night’s 22-point come-from-behind win over the Miami Heat. The starters were out in the fourth quarter for both teams, but the Thunder’s reserves stepped on the gas, playing with the type of focus and attention that will be required in the playoffs.
“For any team to really be good, you have to have belief and you have to have hope,” said Donovan. “If you're in this situation with a mentality of a lack of belief or hope, you're probably going to go home pretty quickly.”
“We gotta have that mindset: coming ready to play with energy, talking out there, getting stops, playing hard and then you can live with the results on the offensive end,” noted veteran forward Mike Muscala.
While Donovan and the Thunder came into the bubble with that required self-confidence, there was an overall approach that was based in an “expect nothing, ask for nothing” attitude of gratitude off the floor. That mindset was accompanied by a pragmatic understanding that the play on the court was likely to be clunky. With no fans in the stands, limited noise in the arena and the need to create their own energy, it was up to the Thunder to rebuild itself from scratch.
“Everybody's starting from ground zero and some teams will get more cohesive a little bit quicker than others,” said Donovan on July 31, before the Thunder’s seeding games began. “And I think that's what everybody's fighting for right now.”
“You're trying to get everybody back to being ready to play and I think that's the same around the league,” Donovan added. “There’s going to be those moments where the games are probably a little bit sloppy.”
The Thunder have alternated wins and losses in the bubble, swamping Utah then falling to Denver in overtime, beating the Western Conference leading Los Angeles Lakers then dropping one to the Memphis Grizzlies, taking care of business against the Washington Wizards and then getting blitzed by the red-hot Phoenix Suns before conjuring some fourth quarter magic against the Heat. As much as the team would have liked to have had consistency in the win column and continuity in terms of player availability, that simply just hasn’t been how the cards have fallen.
The triple point guard lineup that dominated opponents throughout the course of the season only got together for that Utah win before Dennis Schröder left the bubble to be with his wife and young son as he welcomed his second child, a daughter, into the world.
Steven Adams missed three games with a leg contusion. Terrance Ferguson, Nerlens Noel and Mike Muscala each missed two games while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari each missed one game. Thunder rookie guard Lu Dort left Wednesday’s game with a knee injury and did not return, and the team is awaiting more test results to determine his status moving forward.
Meanwhile, Andre Roberson joined the mix after two-and-a-half years of injury rehab while youngsters like Darius Bazley and Hamidou Diallo came back not only as better players, but different players.
“We put in a lot of work to get ready for this,” said Thunder point guard, Player’s Association President and bubble co-architect Chris Paul. “Guys’ shots looked different before the break. Guys have come back with more confidence and you put the work and time in on anything, your teammates can tell. There’s just a different level trust level on our team.”
The result though has been unfamiliar lineups and player combinations and some inconsistency in the level of execution on the floor, whether it be with turnovers, the ability to get downhill to the rim or defensive communication.
"The games are somewhat choppy,” Donovan said. “We need these games to get our rhythm back. The pace, the endurance to have a style of play. Guys' mindsets are in a good place. We have to keep working to get better."
At its best, the Thunder have looked like world beaters, knocking off the Lakers, Jazz and Heat, three major threats in the playoff picture. But look around at the rest of the league and you’ll see that the Thunder’s times of struggle look very similar to other teams’. No squad in the top 8 of the Western Conference has a winning streak of more than 1 game, and in fact, the West’s top three seeds (Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets) have a combined bubble record of 10-11.
“Every team has had some kind of ailment that they’re having to deal with,” said Donovan. “Everybody has challenges. Everybody has had issues. What everybody has been trying to do is make sure that you’re getting to the end of the regular season where you feel like your guys have been able to keep a good rhythm, they’ve been able to sustain some conditioning and they’re being able to play and come back the next day.”
“Like everybody else we are trying to get back to the same rhythm where we were when we were still playing the season in March,” said veteran forward Danilo Gallinari. “That's something that’s not easy to do right away. It’s gonna take some time but I'm sure that we'll get to that point.”
Still the Thunder’s connection off the floor is as good as it has ever been. Paul is pacing the sidelines during timeouts, talking to each cluster of players or coaches like a CEO checking in on various departments within a company. The youngsters are keeping their ears open to listen to veteran advice. Everyone has been in full-on cheerleader mode both as teammates make big plays, like Muscala’s game-winning three-pointer on Wednesday, or when they need to pick their brother up after a tough night.
“We have a real special group,” said forward Abdel Nader. “Real cohesiveness.”
It’s going to be that kind of connection that proves vital in the playoffs. The typical mantra is “we’re all we’ve got” when it comes to the postseason. Down in the bubble, away from family, with no fans, in an unfamiliar environment after two weeks of lineup shuffling and rhythm building, that aphorism will be truer than ever.
“We're just going to keep our head down and keep fighting,” said Paul. “What every team is trying to build even in the regular season is you want to make sure that you have a team that feels like it can't be beat four out of seven times.”