From the moment Steven Adams sank a corner 3-pointer on the opening play of the season, there’s been a subtle indication that there’s something different about this Thunder team. Unsure, fans and players alike tried their best to put their finger on what that something was.
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Chris Paul took the first stab at it.
After that first game of the season in Tulsa, Paul stood against the blue Thunder backdrop fielding questions from media. In the 3 minutes and 45 seconds he stood in front of that backdrop, he used the word “spirit” four times to describe the vibe he had with his teammates during the game.
“The spirit was right,” he said. “Guys are genuinely happy to see each other doing well and I think we can build off that.”
At the time, it was hard to tell whether that post-game “spirit” was a residual effect of the first win of the season or whether it was the lingering ebullience of seeing Steven Adams sink a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game. However, as time passed, we came to learn that Paul’s statements in that post-game interview were a testament to the potential within this group of guys to build incredible chemistry. Paul’s words were essentially prophetic.
That “spirit” he was referring to was a precursor to the undeniable bond that this Thunder team ended up building together both on and off the floor. This became evident on road trips throughout the season. In the league’s most hostile environments, the Thunder proved that it could withstand the highs and lows of opposing crowds and all it truly needed was the energy from its own sideline. Since the beginning of December, the squad has gone 19-4 on the road and at one point held a nine-game road winning streak, the longest in Thunder history and the best in the NBA at the time.
What better test of adversity than overcoming a seemingly insurmountable deficit in enemy territory? This became the Thunder’s calling card. It’s what makes them so dangerous– you can never count them out. In three different instances this season, the Thunder has rallied back from deficits of 15 or more points in the fourth quarter for a win on the road.
In that same vein, the top 5 leaders in the league in clutch plus/minus rating are all from the Thunder: Dennis Schröder, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul. As a team, the Thunder holds the top spot for the most clutch time points in the league with 447.
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“We know that we have a lot of weapons, a lot of guys that come in and know what they’re going to do. They’re very focused on the game plan, very unselfish, so every night the next guy is stepping up and is doing a great job. Everybody since the beginning of the season,” Gallinari said. “I think chemistry, timing and just being unselfish and finding the guys at the right time in the right spots.”
What led to that indelible chemistry and “spirit” that everyone could see on the floor? What was the secret sauce that created such a fun product to watch on the floor? To answer that question, you’ll have to look outside of the 94 by 50 slab of hardwood and into the small pockets of downtime hidden within an 82-game season.
Take for example, the Thunder’s game against Memphis in December as a microcosm of what off-court unity translates to on the floor. Before the game, each player strutted into the arena sporting brand-new, custom-tailored suits courtesy of Chris Paul. Seeing Steven Adams in a custom-tailored suit and wearing closed-toed shoes sent the same electricity throughout the team as a game-winning 3-pointer. As soon as Adams walked into the locker room, he had a chorus of 13 hype men singing his praises. In the game that followed, the Thunder overcame an imposing 24-point deficit to win the game.
“The cool part about it was not even what we did, but that we did it together,” Paul said after the game when talking about the suits he bought for the team. Although, the same could have been said for their clutch time win that night.
Even outside of matching ensembles, the squad demonstrated continuous acts of unity. They spent their rare off time courtside at the Cox Convention Center watching the OKC Blue in action and supporting their G League partners. In January, they braved the cold weather to catch an NFL Wild Card game between the Seahawks and the Eagles.
The squad’s seemingly unbreakable connection was put to the test when COVID-19 paused the NBA season and all social contact along with it. Would being away from one another put a strain on their relationships? Would the lack of time together stifle their enthusiasm?
To put it simply– no.
The team participated in weekly Zoom calls to stay in touch. Even through the virtual partition, the same fun energy continued with jokes, laughter and genuine care for one another’s well-being.
“The conversations are very funny,” Danilo Gallinari said on the Thunder Basketball Universe Podcast in May. “We just share what we are doing every day. We make fun of each other and it’s pretty cool.”
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When Paul spoke to media on a conference call in April, he expressed just how much he looked forward to those Zoom conversations with his team.
“I’ve said it a number of times, this is the funnest year I’ve had with a team… we spend a lot more time with each other than we do with our actual family. When you’re on a team like we have, where there’s genuine happiness for each other, you always want to see what you can achieve.”
As the Thunder gears back up to restart the season, it will have another opportunity to show what the powerful force of a strong team chemistry is capable of. More than just awe-inspiring comebacks and unified celebration on the sidelines it will have the chance to show what this team is made of in an unprecedented setting.
It’s the secret to its achievements. It’s the secret to a fun season. It’s the key to resilience and overcoming adversity. Whatever the Thunder cooks up for its opponents in Orlando, chemistry will be its secret sauce.
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