Just like he has done dozens of times since last summer, second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit the weight room then walked onto the practice court at the Thunder Ion on Wednesday morning. He picked up a ball and with assistant coach Brian Keefe by his side, went through his on-court workout regimen.
In shifts, in the same building but spaced apart from the rest of his Thunder teammates, it was Gilgeous-Alexander’s first official team activity as a part of the minicamp in Oklahoma City before the 37-person traveling party embarks for Orlando on July 8. Since the NBA went on hiatus, however, Gilgeous-Alexander has been keeping his basketball skills sharp by either getting to a court outside. Eventually, once restrictions began to loosen, he got into a gymnasium and utilized the Thunder Ion, once the NBA allowed for re-opening of team facilities.
“I’ve played pretty much the whole time,” Gilgeous-Alexander grinned.
“I just wanted to get back to playing basketball,” he added. “I'm a hooper.”
If the status of the Thunder’s leading scorer this season is a benchmark, then the team as a whole is looking to hit the ground running to re-fortify the off-court chemistry, on-court cohesion and in-game tenacity that it displayed for 64 games.
Before the season was stopped on March 11, the Thunder went 40-24, including 34-13 since Thanksgiving, with Gilgeous-Alexander and his 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists serving crucially to the cause. His jovial relationship with veteran point guard Chris Paul has been an indicator to the league, the locker room and the fan base that the team was committed to winning, together, however it needed to do so.
That meant playing with three point guards on the floor, sharing ballhandling duties and spreading out the spotlight too. Despite the fact that at present Gilgeous-Alexander and his teammates aren’t actually passing one another the ball, pushing each other in practice and cracking neither jokes nor dunks on each other’s heads inside the ION, this Thunder squad was eager to get back to work in the same building, though physically distanced. They’re also motivated to stay as hygienic as possible to try and prevent COVID infections before the team leaves for Orlando.
“I just wanted to get back, see the guys a little bit and hoop more,” said Gilgeous-Alexander regarding the official return to practice. “I just try to control what I can control. I don’t go out. If I go out, I have a mask on and gloves on. Hands sanitized 24/7. I just try to stay out of the way when it comes to being outside this building. I wasn’t too worried. I just knew I had to take the necessary precautions.”
Safety precautions due to COVID and shining a light on the nation-wide social justice movement will be at the forefront of factors that the NBA will focused on. That includes allowing players to put different words other than their last names on the back of their jerseys. At present, Gilgeous-Alexander is so focused on the basketball side of things that he hasn’t thought deeply about his jersey, though said that he thinks it’s a good concept to allow players to use their voice and platform. It’s something he’ll think more about in Orlando.
In the meantime, Gilgeous-Alexander’s mind is on helping his team get back into rhythm, which has been kept alive through individual workouts inside apartments, on non-regulation hoops and over Zoom calls. Now that they’re all back in the same city and preparing to head to Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando to begin five-on-five practices and training camp inside the bubble, the Thunder needs to start getting its mojo back up and running.
“It’ll take a little bit, but that’s what the training camp is for. With the high character guys we have on this team, I don’t think chemistry and things like that will be too much of an issue for us coming back,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We need our chemistry. That’s what makes us so special and has allowed us to perform the way we have so far.”
The Thunder began the year 1-4 and through 17 games it was just 6-11. But after Thanksgiving OKC started to pick up speed with back-to-back wins against New Orleans, a close loss at home to Indiana and then perhaps the wildest finish in any NBA game all year – a 139-127 overtime win over Minnesota at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Gilgeous-Alexander pointed to that night, when Steven Adams heaved a full-court inbounds pass to Dennis Schröder for a banked in runner to beat the buzzer and force overtime, as the game that set the Thunder on its playoff-bound trajectory.
“That game was really what turned it around for us and we realized we could be something special,” Gilgeous-Alexander explained.
Five Thunder players scored 20-or-more points that night, including 29 points on 8-for-13 shooting and a career-best 12-for-12 shooting from the free throw line by Gilgeous-Alexander. Rookie Lu Dort was subbed in and made a heroic steal. Chris Paul kept his head up and noticed a violation by the Timberwolves and after Adams’ heave, the Thunder clinched the delirious win in the extra frame. Since then OKC has had one of the very best records in the entire NBA, vaulted itself to the fifth seed in the Western Conference and secured a playoff berth for the 10th time in the past 11 years.
Now, however, the playing field has been somewhat equalized. Down in Orlando there will be eight seeding games followed by a traditional playoff setup, but without any semblance of homecourt advantage. The Thunder will be in the mix and duking it out with the seven other Western Conference playoff foes. A variety of them could be a first-round matchup for the Thunder, but no matter who OKC draws, it will be about the work put in during the hiatus, the diligence this week at the ION and the collaboration that happens in Orlando that determines who walks away with the NBA Finals hardware in October.
“We’re all high-level basketball players, the best in the world. No matter the outside circumstances, we still have to play basketball, put the basketball in the bucket more than team does and win the game,” Gilgeous-Alexander said firmly. “The team that does that most deserves all the accolades it comes with.”