During the hiatus, all 30 NBA teams were fractured in some way. Separated. Keeping connected only really by intentionality and force of will.
For the Thunder, the players stayed committed to one another by what they did each day. They wore masks when they went out, tried to keep themselves as protected as possible from COVID-19. The result was that every player who planned to make the trip to Orlando was able to do so.
In their apartments or houses, they not only stayed in shape with the guidance of the team’s strength and conditioning personnel, but even elevated their physical strength and dexterity. They watched film with the guidance of the coaching staff, and they did it all to improve themselves, but also as a pledge to the team, with the understanding that they had to bunker down together in order to perform well in the re-start.
On the court in Orlando, the Thunder has put in two weeks of grueling practice work and come away victorious in a pair of scrimmages against Boston and Philadelphia. They’ve done it with voices booming from the bench and togetherness amongst all 16 guys.
“It’s just us out there,” said guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Heading into the re-start, Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan knew that he and his staff would need to look at playing more players than they would during a normal season for a variety of reasons. A COVID-19 diagnosis for a player or one of their family members could take a crucial rotation player away for an unknown period of time.
After four months away from the court, it is unclear how players’ bodies will react to playing in game action for 30-plus minutes on an every-other-day basis. There will be countless challenges to the group, but the key for Donovan was to keep everyone engaged so that teammates could step right up.
“What you got to do really from the mental standpoint is you got to be there to lift each other up because not everybody's gonna have a great day, every day,” Donovan said.
The two scrimmage wins for the Thunder have been a perfect case study that thus far, has proven Donovan’s theory correct. In the first matchup with Boston, the Thunder’s starters played sensationally, jumping out to a double-digit lead before halftime. The reserves, boosted emotionally by Andre Roberson’s first appearance in game action in 909 days, finished the job.
On Sunday against Philadelphia, the Thunder’s starters struggled as Donovan extended their minutes, falling behind by 24 points to the Sixers with 3:31 to go in the third quarter. Over the final 15 minutes of the game, however, the Thunder outscored Philadelphia 45-16, led by a pair of three-pointers by Darius Bazley, who notched 13 points in the game, and another couplet of threes by Mike Muscala in just 9 minutes of action. To cap it off, Roberson, known as a defensive specialist, buried two more threes with less than a minute to go to complete the comeback.
WATCH: Thunder Talk – Staying Engaged
“Everyone is going to play a factor in some part of the game. It's good that everyone's able to get in and just get that feel back for the game,” said Bazley. “At some point, everyone will factor or play a role in some game. We'll need them.
“It's also really critical that you know everyone's staying locked in and ready to go because at any given time your number could get called,” Bazley added.
When even 20-year-old rookies like Bazley have that level of perspective, it’s clear there’s some older folks in the group that are setting the example. Chris Paul has done a masterful job of navigating his role as Thunder point guard and team leader, taking the time to both chat with and goof around with youngsters like Bazley and Gilgeous-Alexander, but also stay engaged in his role as NBPA president and social activist in the battle to achieve equal racial treatment in American society.
Providing additional guidance has been Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti, who has a role in many of the same departments as Paul. He helped begin an initiative with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) called the Thunder Fellows Program, which will unlock opportunities in sports, technology and entertainment for Black students in the Tulsa area. Presti has been on hand in Orlando to help guide the team there as well, instilling an attitude of gratitude from the very outset of the experience.
“When you have someone like Sam here, it no question helps keep everybody together and gives a different perspective,” said Donovan. “Obviously Sam's got a lot of responsibilities in his job but all of us being together in this situation allows us to collaborate and work together.”
“Expect nothing, ask for nothing,” is the mantra that Presti learned as a young intern with the San Antonio Spurs. As Gilgeous-Alexander pointed out, when there’s an understanding that it’s only the guys in your locker room that matter and that there’s no point to complain about external circumstances, there’s a level of freedom that arises.
When all four levels of an NBA organization – ownership, management, coaching and players are all pulling in the same direction, it’s an opportunity for an incredible culture to flourish. A player like Mike Muscala has witnessed first-hand what it’s like to be on the periphery of the NBA, being shuffled from team to team like he did last year with the Sixers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I just get emotional thinking about it,” said Muscala. “Me, you know, I bounced around a little bit last year and to have the support and everything here, it makes you just want to go play hard, and just do the best you can.”
With the Thunder, however, he has noticed a family-type environment that is grateful for the work that goes into pulling off an NBA game, the sacrifices that people in the community are making and what it means for the players to recognize that with their play, their words and their actions. Down in the bubble, the Thunder is relying on each other completely and fortunately, that’s a muscle it knows how to flex.
“I said this and I truly believe it: we’ve got a special team,” said Paul. “We’ve got a really special team and we genuinely love to be around each other.”