“It’s the same season. It’s a continuation,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan, firmly, as he stood in a white, long-sleeve, Thunder-branded dry-fit t-shirt.
The Thunder’s x’s and o’s man was fresh off the court, looking just like he normally does after one of his team’s practices, but this one was unlike any he’s ever coached during his five seasons in OKC. Down in Orlando, inside the bubble the NBA created at Walt Disney World Resort, the Thunder assembled as an entire group for the first time in almost exactly four months, since the team was in the Chesapeake Energy Arena locker room on March 11. Shoes were squeaking again. Guys were passing the rock, moving, cutting and most importantly, talking and laughing.
“They were excited to be out there,” Donovan said, “excited to play practice, be around one another. There was really good energy in the gym.”
“We got a really special team and genuinely love to be around each other,” said point guard Chris Paul, who also serves as the National Basketball Players’ Association president and had a huge role in orchestrating the bubble. “To get out on the court and be around each other was a breath of fresh air.”
Last time they all saw each other, the players and staff were getting their temperatures taken in the moments after the Thunder’s game against the Utah Jazz was postponed. Now, starting with Friday evening’s practice, OKC will have three weeks to prepare to play the Jazz again in its first “seeding game” on August 1.
With a limit of just 37 personnel that could travel into the bubble with the team to Orlando, including 17 players, the Thunder were facing the same decisions that all of the other 21 teams about who made the trip. That means that the coaching staff is a little slimmer than it typically would be, but the Thunder has always had people who assist with what happens on the court that don’t necessarily step onto it themselves. The coaches and basketball operations staffers who didn’t make the trip will still be cutting and editing practice film, making evaluations and taking part in strategizing with the entire coaching group.
“Even though they're not in Orlando, we'll try to make sure that they’re involved as they possibly can be to help our staff,” said Donovan.
As the team got back to work on Friday, it went over some of the basics that will need to be re-established from the season. Pick and roll coverages and positioning on defense, scripting offensive play calls and working through the team’s base actions on offense. After that, the team scrimmaged for the first time to begin re-implementing what it had mastered during the 40-24 paused season it put together.
“Defense is a little bit more cut-and-dry. There’s things you know you’re doing,” Donovan explained. “Offense, there’s a rhythm, a randomness, a freedom to it. That’s the stuff that’s really hard to get back.”
“It’s all about the game rhythm and that means that it’s both offensively and defensively,” veteran forward Danilo Gallinari added. “It’s a process on both ends of the floor.”
While Donovan had to choose exactly where to start with practice number one, the team will be meeting again the next few days to get on the floor to continue building a rhythm. Everyone is getting adjusted to life in the bubble, but they're also re-acclimating to the team it was in March and trying to recapture that for the final regular season sprint and the playoffs.
“We have such a great group of guys,” said Paul. “We’re so unselfish. We play so hard and play together. The more time that we get here and plan and remember some of the stuff we like to do together, I think it’ll take care of itself.”
WATCH: Back to Work
While the eight games in two weeks will go by in a blur, the next three weeks up until that point could be a grind. The Thunder knows that ahead of time and understands that while the level of energy was high on the first day, it’s going to take the whole group being resilient to maintain it until gameplay begins.
“The challenge is going to be for every team and certainly for us, can you maintain that energy level going through this?” Donovan asked. “That's where we got to lift each other up, we got to help each other, we got to keep each other engaged.”
“We know we got a long haul in front of us with the number of weeks to prepare for this first game,” added Donovan. “But overall, if we can continue to have the mentality that we had today, I think will get better and will improve.”
Roberson Practices Fully
While some teams are dealing with significantly different rosters due to players opting out of entering the bubble, the Thunder squad that competed so far in 2019-20 is completely intact and healthy. In fact, OKC may even have another weapon in the arsenal.
Thunder guard Andre Roberson, who hasn’t played since suffering a ruptured patellar tendon on Jan. 27, 2018, was on the court with the Thunder in Orlando, practicing fully with the team. Roberson has had setbacks in his rehab over the past 30 months, so it was a pleasure for his teammates to see him on the court amongst the group.
“As far as playing with Dre, man, it's the best thing ever,” said Paul.
“He's had some of the toughest times that people wouldn't even know,” the team’s leader added. "I’m unbelievably happy to see him out there playing and practicing.”
Paul has never played a game in the same jersey as Roberson, but knows him well from endless battles between the Thunder and the Clippers and Rockets, two of Paul’s former teams. Roberson was always the Thunder’s defensive ace, assigned to the opposition’s best perimeter player, so Paul was often his target each time their squads lined up.
After Paul was traded to the Thunder, Roberson showed him what type of teammate he could expect. Paul was part of a movie release in Los Angeles, and yet before the two had ever shared a practice together, there was Roberson in person to support his new point guard.
Evidence of Roberson’s selflessness extended through the season, as he’s been there for rookie Lu Dort as a defensive sage. Gallinari mentioned the joy and energy that Roberson brought to practice on Friday and that should be no surprise – that bouncing off the walls activity has always been Dre’s calling card. “(Roberson) looked really, really good in terms of the way he was moving,” added Donovan. “It was great to see him out there.”