The Oklahoma City Thunder moved to 2-1 in the NBA bubble on Wednesday, as they gave the Lakers fits in a 105-86 win that ensured that anyone that hadn’t taken them seriously opened their eyes.
This is a team that few, if any, expected to be here. After trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook in the offseason with a clear eye on the future with all of the draft picks they acquired, the expectation was that the Thunder would likely look to move off of veterans Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and/or Danilo Gallinari if able to fully shift towards a youth movement. However, the Thunder got off to a strong start and never slowed down, leading Sam Presti to happily keep their veterans at the deadline and press forward with a playoff squad.
While Oklahoma City exists in the realm just below expected contender status in the bubble, they are a team that no Western Conference contender will want to face in a playoff series. The Thunder have taken on the identity of their leader in Chris Paul, which is to say playing them is a grating, miserable experience. They are almost nauseatingly active on both ends of the floor, harassing opponents on the defensive end into turnovers and awkward, contested looks, while on offense able to attack you with waves of ball-handlers.
Oklahoma City doesn’t boast a ton in the way of star power on a national scale beyond Paul, but what they’ve managed to do is put together a roster that has incredible balance in spite of the apparent haste with which Presti and company had to change their vision this summer when George requested out. Their backcourt trio of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder (currently on an excused absence from the bubble after the birth of his child) seemed like an odd mix of three ball dominant players, but to their credit and Billy Donovan’s, they’ve made necessary adjustments to each of their games and all appear to be maximizing their talents.
Schröder has managed to become a terrific spot-up shooter after years of woeful efficiency in Atlanta and early in his OKC tenure, embracing his increasingly off-ball status and the looks SGA and CP3 can create for him, while being better at picking his spots to attack off the dribble. Gilgeous-Alexander has only built on a terrific rookie season in L.A., likewise taking to an off-ball role when needed, as it’s hard to argue with putting the basketball in the hands of one of the best to ever do it. Still, he’s afforded plenty of opportunity, leading the team in scoring at 19.4 points per game, and with a wing rotation that was thin on established players this season, the two long-limbed guards can take on difficult wing defensive assignments.
Paul is, well, Chris Paul, which is to say he look an awful lot like the Point God of old, controlling the tempo and toying with defenses to get the looks he wants for both him and his teammates. The 34-year-old is still a dominant presence on the floor, and while his counting stats have taken a dip in the egalitarian flow of OKC’s backcourt, make no mistake who has the basketball in important moments. Paul has become a master of managing his energy, recognizing the exact moment in a game in which to unleash the Thunder’s athletes at a frenetic pace and also when to regain control of the reins and assert himself in isolation play as only he can.
Lakers had no answer for Chris Paul 😳 pic.twitter.com/HLENSniCBH
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 6, 2020
Gallinari has likewise embraced his new surroundings, often the forgotten man when discussing what makes the Thunder tick given the somewhat surprising success of their young-and-old duo in the backcourt. The ever steady power forward, while capable of creating his own shot, thrives off the ball, hitting 40.9 percent of his threes with 85 percent of those being assisted, as he’s more than happy to take every look created by the gravitational pull of a driving Paul or SGA.
The rest of the team, offensively, thrives in the roles they’re asked to play around that nucleus. The wing rotation isn’t filled with household names, but does boast incredibly long, bouncy athletes, happy to cut to the rim and take spot ups in the corners when asked. Darius Bazley, Terrance Ferguson, Lugentz Dort, Hamidou Diallo, and the recently returning Andre Roberson all profile fairly similarly on offense. None are great shooters, but take the open looks when needed to keep the floor spaced and are excellent cutters. Most importantly, they are all long, active, athletic defenders who Donovan can throw at opposing wings in waves to wear them down. Combined with Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder, they have switchability and play with an energy that few teams can match on a nightly basis.
On the inside, a significant burden falls on the broad shoulders of Steven Adams, happy to clean up on the boards and body up opposing big men. Adams may not be as dynamic a defender as he once was, losing a touch of foot speed and quickness, but he’s still a monstrous presence in the paint and his defensive IQ almost always sees him in the right position and rotation. Offensively, he screens and dives to the rim, using his excellent hands and touch to finish around the basket in pick-and-rolls and deep post ups. Behind him, Nerlens Noel, while not the star some hoped he could become as a prospect, profiles an awful lot like what the Sixers hoped he would be in terms of a rim-runner and versatile defender.
The Thunder are currently tied with Houston for the 5-seed in the West, just a half game back of Utah for fourth, and it would be of little surprise to see them come out of a first round series with a win. If they do, you can rest assured that neither L.A. team wants to deal with a series against OKC because of their style of play.
Most every team that plays the Thunder looks like they’re having a terrible time, win or lose. Their activity level is off the charts on defense, with players with the skills and defensive IQ to make that activity level actionable, and on offense have full faith in what they do and understanding of their roles. That’s a dangerous combination, and while the Lakers clearly looked flat in their first game after clinching the 1-seed in the West, Wednesday’s game was yet another example of the Thunder’s ability to compete with the best.
Whether they have the gear to make a deep run in the playoffs is something we’ll have to wait and see — teams that play with this much energy and effort on a regular basis can be overwhelmed when top teams flip the proverbial switch come playoff time. But no matter what, they’re going be a tough out once the postseason arrives, wearing someone down and making basketball miserable for 4-7 games.