Digging down in the middle of the lane on defense, getting low and slapping the ball around for a scrappy steal, Dennis Schröder took no time getting back to what he did all season for the Thunder. He was locked in defensively and providing his unique spark of energy on the opening possession of the Thunder’s final seeding game, a 107-103 overtime loss to the LA Clippers on Friday night.
OKC was settled into a home court-free first-round playoff matchup with the Houston Rockets before the game even began, so the Thunder’s typical starters only played in the first half. But all 53 minutes of this one were crucial, including 26 vital minutes for the player who perhaps embodied the challenges of the Orlando bubble experience more than anyone on the Thunder roster: Schröder.
Schröder missed the six games between the Thunder’s seeding games opener against the Utah Jazz and Friday’s game in order to attend the birth of his daughter, standing beside his wife Ellen and their toddler Dennis Jr. The Thunder of course was fully supportive of Schröder and alongside the NBA facilitated his exit from and entrance to the bubble, ensuring that it went as quickly and smoothly as possible.
“The NBA did a great job. OKC did a great job, bringing me to my wife to support her,” said Schröder, who arrived back in the Orlando bubble on Monday and quarantined until Friday morning at 11 a.m., when he left his room for the first time.
Immediately after that opening possession steal against the Clippers, Schröder zipped past his defender on the left side of the floor for an easy blow-by layup. Using that electric first step of his, the man with a gold lightning bolt shaved into his hairline shook off being away from the Thunder for 12 days with one of his signature buckets. While the game may not have meant much in the standings, the 20 first half minutes and six extra rotation minutes in the third quarter meant the world to Schröder as he’ll try to spend the weekend getting back into rhythm with his Thunder teammates.
“(He’s) a big part of our team,” said Paul. “A big piece of our team wasn’t here. When we get him back, we’ll be ready to roll.”
On Friday, Schröder showed that he’s absolutely capable of hitting the ground running, but just like every player on every team has had to do in the bubble, he’s also had to shake some rust off. On one early possession, Schröder turned his head on a switch for just a fraction of a second and came up late on a close-out. He also racked up four fouls before the 7-minute mark of the second quarter, but overall Schröder’s night was extremely positive. For the game he shot 6-of-12 from the field and notched 17 points to go with four assists and a steal.
“I felt great. Being away for six games, it's always tough but I kept myself staying ready and was practicing, working out a little bit,” said Schröder. “The shots was falling. I felt pretty confident.”
“I felt like (Schröder) had a pretty good rhythm, just in the flow of the way we were playing, inside of what we do. That was good to see,” said Head Coach Billy Donovan. “I feel like he got some really good work in tonight and he looked and played well.”
In the first quarter Schröder dribbled around a pick, curling tightly around the screener to free himself up with the slimmest of openings for one of his patented mid-range jumpers. Next he attacked former Thunder forward Patrick Patterson with a frightfully fast drive with his right hand, scooping up a layup while protecting himself from getting blocked.
“It's great to have Dennis back. He's a great point guard, a great leader,” said Hamidou Diallo, who scored a career-high 27 points on four made threes, also a career-best, on Friday night. “He brings that energy, brings that defensive mentality to the second unit. And I mean everybody knows he can score it with the best of them.”
“Dennis is a really great guard. You can see us missing him with the games he was gone,” added Deonte Burton. “There was a different presence on the floor without him. I'm glad to have Dennis back. That presence he brings is unmatched. He just has a ton of energy.”
In the second quarter, Schröder did his damage with the pass and with his three-point stroke. He flicked a nice pass to Diallo in the corner for a three, then got into the act with his own long-range jumper. Thanks to three made threes in the second quarter, including two in the final 60 seconds of the first half, Schröder has now registered a career-best 38.5 percent shooting from three on the season. That marksmanship from behind the arc has been one of the major reasons he’s been such a great fit alongside two other point guards: Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
In the coming days before Game 1 of the Thunder and Rockets’ opening round series that starts on Tuesday, it’ll be a major point of emphasis for Donovan and the coaching staff to put Schröder in the type of situations where he excelled all season long. The three-guard lineup of Schröder, Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander has the best net rating of any three-man unit in the NBA and has been a staple of the Thunder’s clutch-time victories this season.
“We need to have some time with some different lineups now that Dennis is back,” said Donovan. “Now we’re back into a situation where we can play two of those three guys if not all three of them and we need to get some time with that in practice where they’re kind of working together and playing together.”
“We need to keep getting better and get prepared,” Donovan continued. “The more that those guys can develop that bond, that chemistry, that rhythm together, that’s what we want to try to help them accomplish before we get ready to play.”
Schröder will have a couple of practices over the weekend and on Monday to get re-assimilated with his team on the floor, but off the court, he’s already been embraced by the rest of the Thunder brotherhood. For many NBA players, the 94 feet from basket to basket is an oasis. For Schröder, it’s a place of comfort, even when his heart is 1,200 miles away with his wife and newborn baby.
During his minutes on Friday in the Thunder’s final seeding game, Schröder was able to lose himself in the battle alongside his teammates and pick up his groove again. He’s back in the bubble, just before the vaunted “second season” of the NBA playoffs begins. In 2020 though, it’s more like the third season.
“It was the last game,” said Schröder. “So it's go-time now.”