By Michael Kinney
When the 2019-20 NBA season tipped off some 10 months ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were considered an afterthought. With the loss of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, many observers publicly stated the team would be dismantled before Christmas.
But when the games actually started, Oklahoma City showed they had different plans.
After 70 games in the regular season, including eight inside the Orlando bubble, the No. 5 seed Thunder (44-28) will take the floor Tuesday to start the 2020 postseason against the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets (44-28) at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
This is the 10th trip to the playoffs in the last 11 seasons for Oklahoma City. But it is the first time in at least five years that the postseason seems to be wide open.
“The best teacher is experience,” Thunder guard Chris Paul said. “We can talk about it as much as we want to, but we just have to go out there and play. I think for us, no one expected us to be here. So we’re out here, we’re going to continue to have fun and continue to play together and go out here and hoop.”
Paul is one of the few members of the Thunder with a long resume in the postseason. But even he admitted the situation all 16 teams find themselves in this year makes everyone somewhat of a novice on how to approach the contests.
That includes having to play without fans.
“I’ve played in 102 playoff games, but I’ve never played in one playoff game in a bubble,” Paul said. “Your home court is predicated on virtual fans and just so happens to be the jersey that you wear. So I’ll be able to draw from past experiences in arenas with screaming fans, but I don’t have any experience to draw from, from here, so it’s going to be a new experience for all of us.”
When the Thunder takes the court in this series, they will be looking back in time for the most part. The Rockets are led by former MVPs Westbrook and James Harden, who were both on the squad in the early years in Oklahoma City.
While Harden left after the Thunder lost in the NBA Championship in 2012, Westbrook hung around for a decade before asking to be traded at the end of the 2018-19 campaign.
Harden led the NBA scoring again this season with a 34.4 clip to go along with 8.9 assists, 8.3 rebounds. Westbrook averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 assists and 7.0 rebounds on the season.
In previous games, the Thunder have used Lu Dort to guard Harden. However, coach Billy Donovan doesn’t expect Dort to play in Game 1 as he recovers from a minor injury.
Westbrook strained a quad late in the restart and missed the last two seeding games. He has already been listed as out for Game 1 of the series against his former squad.
”I don’t think they have a specific time on it yet,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters Friday. ”Hopefully, it’s sooner than later. We have to hold serve until we get him back.”
Oklahoma City doesn’t boast any league leaders in scoring. They don’t even have a player averaging 20 points a game.
But what the Thunder do have is balance. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces Oklahoma City at 19.0 ppg a game. Dennis Schröder (18.9), Paul (17.6) and Danilo Gallinari (18.7) all have the ability to take over the scoring load for stretches.
Schröder, who left the bubble briefly for the birth of his second child, said he is in good condition and ready to resume his normal role with the team.
“It comes down to execution and trying to stay disciplined. I think this is going to be a great series, and I think we’re prepared for it,” Schröder said. “Whoever executes the most and stays in their game plan is going to win the game and I think that’s the biggest focus we got to focus on.”
But it may be how the fresh faces on the Thunder play that could determine the outcome of the series. Dort, Terrance Ferguson, Darius Bazley and Hamidou Diallo should have their moments to make an impact.
“I usually tell them they’ve been doing a great job during the regular season and there is no difference in the playoffs. They are still going to be able to do the same great job. At the end of the day, this is basketball,” Gallinari said. “It’s going to be a little more intense. When you play against the same team, they know what you’re going to do, so you’re going to be scouted. That’s the first challenge. I think they are going to be ready. At the end of the day, it’s basketball.”
Game 1 is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. It will be televised on TNT. Game 2 will be played Thursday at 2:30 p.m.
Story and Photo by Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media