Looking Forward, Thunder Growth and Evolution Continue

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

With a new coach, a new system and new players all mixed in together for the first time, the Thunder had an uphill climb ahead of it at the start of the season. At the apex of that ascent, however, was the greatest of all prizes in the NBA and the Thunder nearly got to the very top.

Falling short in the seventh game of the Western Conference Finals was a tough pill to swallow for sure, but the Thunder feels that it is better for the experience, learned more about itself and has taken a major step forward in its continuing quest for high level basketball.

One aspect of that was Head Coach Billy Donovan’s ability to put players in a variety of positions, based on the situation, in order to succeed. That meant that players sacrificed, learned new skills and engaged in new circumstances for the betterment of the team. For example, Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson both stretched out to the three-point line and caught the ball in the middle of the floor to move it from one side to the other.

“What I learned this year, I'm going to work on this summer and try and get better next year,” Ibaka said. “Just mental sacrifice. Everybody was ready to sacrifice for the team to do their job. In the season there were a lot of ups and down, but when it was playoff time, everybody was locked in because it was the moment. Everybody was ready to give up everything for the team.”

“All the guys believed in the system that Billy laid out for us, and we all committed to it.
Roberson added. “The growth for the team, the chemistry on and off the floor grew tremendously all throughout the season, and I just thought it was a great run. It just kind of ended earlier than expected.”

The team as a whole was able to channel those experiences during the season and harness its relentless will and determination in the postseason, where it won 11 games, defeated the 67-win San Antonio Spurs and won three games against the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Veteran leaders like Nick Collison recognized that the type of play the team displayed in the Playoffs is exactly the type of ball the Thunder needs to play for all 82 games so that those habits are locked into the team’s DNA come next April.

“The longer we can have those stretches of high focus like we had in those playoff games, the more that that is closer to our norm, the better on the defensive end,” said Collison. “We're capable of being a much better defensive team than we were during the regular season. There's no question about that. And sustaining that for longer periods.”

“And then on the offensive end, continuing to execute and get better shots at the toughest times,” Collison continued. “That's the hardest part, I think, in these playoff series is generating good shots against the best defenses at the most difficult times. All the work that goes into that throughout the season so that we're as prepared as possible at the end.”

The Thunder has the platform to be able to continue on its road of improvement that only went on an upward trajectory over the final months of the season. All offseason Donovan and his coaching staff will work off of what they learned in their first season together, and the Thunder’s young core of players will only continue to enhance their individual games.

“We're only going to get better. We are going to continue to grow,” Roberson added. “We all see what we need to do in order to become the best in this league. Definitely got a taste of it playing those two top-tier teams.”

As a team, there was an understanding that there would be some rocky moments as the team all got used to one another this past season. Now with everyone with a season together under their belt, there will be a launch point for the Thunder to embark from when Training Camp begins in the fall.

“We talked at the beginning of the year that it was going to be an adjustment, and there would be times where it looked ugly,” Collison said. “We had a new coach, new staff, new players, and we knew it wasn't going to be pretty the whole time, and I think that's exactly what happened.”

“By the end of the year we wanted to be playing our best basketball, and we continued to get better as the Playoffs went on, and we were playing at a very high level at the end,” Collison said.

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