In the Thunder’s first game in 135 days, the team started the unprecedented resumption to the season in the same way they opened up its 2019-20 season back in October – with a Steven Adams 3-pointer.
Outside of that singular play, there wasn’t much resemblance between those two games. The Thunder faced the Boston Celtics in the team’s first matchup inside of the NBA’s Disney World campus hundreds of miles away from either team’s homecourt. To name a few other notable differences, Adam’s shot bounced off the rim, there was no noticeable gasp from thousands of fans in attendance and there was another seven-year veteran on the Thunder’s bench ready to step in at any moment – Andre Roberson.
It was the moment he, his teammates and thousands of Thunder fans had been looking forward to and waiting for two and a half years. After rupturing his patellar tendon in November of 2018, Roberson has been recovering, training and working to get back to the court with his teammates all while navigating several setbacks along the way. At the five-and-a-half minute mark of the third quarter, he took his inspiring and emotional first steps on the basketball floor in a Thunder uniform after 30 months.
“It was a lot of emotions: anxious, happy, just overly ecstatic to get back on the floor and hear coach call my name to get in the game,” said Roberson on how he felt checking into the game. “He gave me a heads up at halftime that I was going to go in so I was getting myself ready and the nerves started rattling... It just felt great to be back out there, especially with the full support of my team, it was just a blessing.”
Roberson shined in his first game back for the Thunder. He logged five points (2-3 FG), two rebounds and a steal in 12 minutes of play. His biggest highlight happened in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, Luguentz Dort attacked the wing toward Roberson who was spotted up in the corner. Roberson’s defender at the moment, Enes Kanter was deep in help-side positioning and was standing in the paint. A quick flip of the ball from Dort to Roberson resulted in a wide-open 3-pointer which dropped through the rim hitting nothing but net.
Over on the Thunder’s sideline, not a single teammate was sitting in their socially distanced seat. The echoes of cheers and excitement rang through the arena as the camera panned to see Steven Adams flexing in support of his long-time teammate and best friend. Chris Paul couldn’t contain himself behind the video boards separating the players from the court. He walked around to the sideline with his hands raised and shouting encouragement to the Thunder’s beloved forward.
“I used to play against Dre year in and year out, and I got a chance to see him through this whole process and the hard work that he’s put in. It was an unbelievable feeling for us to see one of our brothers who we know what he’s been through mentally,” said Paul. “It’s crazy to see it and the circumstances that took place gave him this opportunity so to see him out there playing this game that we know he loves is special for everybody on our team.”
That moment punctuated and already high-energy scrimmage for the Thunder who took down the Celtics in 94-84 victory. Throughout its mini-training camp, Coach Donovan has vaunted his squad’s intensity and energy coming into the bubble. The question was how it would translate into on-court action.
The Thunder answered with gusto. Dennis Schröder and Hamidou Diallo picked up full-court defensively and young players like Darius Bazley (9 points), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (17 points) and Abdel Nader (11 points) showed off their hiatus gains with explosive offensive plays and high-energy attacks to the basket.
The star of the show, however, was the 7-foot Kiwi. After missing his first shot of the game, Adams went 7-10 from the field and snatched down seven rebounds to finish with an impressive 17 points. To coach Donovan, his activity on the floor was very much indicative of the hard work he put in during the hiatus.
“This was the one thing that stood out to me once we started playing a couple weeks ago, [Adams] has done a great job with his conditioning,” said Donovan. “I could tell even our first day of practice…he had really good stamina and I think a big part of his success tonight was just his overall stamina and his activity in the things he did tonight.”
While there were several expected miscues and unforced turnovers from the Thunder, 18 to be exact, it wasn’t the biggest takeaway for Coach Donovan after his team’s first game in four months. The timing and execution will iron itself out over time, but the chemistry and energy can’t be coached and, in the NBA’s unprecedented scenario, that energy and togetherness will be paramount. That’s where Coach Donovan’s encouragement came from after his team’s first game in the Orlando bubble.
“I still think the execution piece of the timing and all those kind of things are something we got to continue to get better at, but I’ve been really encouraged by the group because they have done a great job of working together, bringing energy every single day, every single day playing for one another and trying to help one another,” said Donovan.
“We’ve just got to use this time as best we can to work on the execution piece of it and the timing and those things, but I think the spirit part, for us, has been great.”