There’s so much uncertainty coming from the NBA’s bubble in Orlando. We’re all aware of the three top teams: the two in Southern California, and the Milwaukee Bucks. But for once, that may not matter. COVID-19 could very well dictate who wins this year’s NBA title, but if everything goes as planned, how will the Thunder perform? What can we expect from them? Who will stand out?
First things first, if Andre Roberson is anywhere near where he was defensively before he tore his patellar tendon 30 months ago, the Thunder’s Cinderella season could become even more entertaining than it’s been. They’ve come a long way from that infamous graphic that displayed they have a 0.2% chance to make the playoffs. If they add a top-tier perimeter defender to what they already have, perhaps the Thunder could match up better with those contenders, specifically, the Lakers and the Clippers that have star players that live on the perimeter.
“The encouraging part to me is…is he at the level he was at defensively before the injury? No. Can he get there? I believe so. He’s still very disruptive.”Head coach Billy Donovan on Roberson.
Even without Roberson, OKC has an opportunity to surprise some people. While Chris Paul isn’t LeBron James, the 4.5 months of rest benefits him and gives him a clean slate and a fresh, healthy body heading into a playoff run. Remember, Chris Paul’s injury in the 2018 Western Conference Finals was what prevented the Houston Rockets from winning a title. CP3 turns it up in the playoffs, and this format may be perfect for him.
Paul and everyone else on the team raved about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s improvement since March 11 when the shutdown started.
“I don’t think y’all have even seen it yet. What I’ve noticed from Shai post-COVID. The game has really slowed down for him,” said Thunder center Nerlens Noel. “I think this next stretch of the playoffs will show his maturity and how he’s grown.”
Shai’s averaging 19.3 points per game in his second NBA season while shooting 47.3% from the field and 35.1% from three. He also averages 6.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. His second-year statistics are comparable to Russell Westbrook, but Shai’s more efficient.
The NBA’s hiatus has served him well but differently than Paul. He’s 22, so he’s had 4.5 months to work on his game, get stronger and build his personal brand and confidence with endorsement deals. Like Paul, the NBA’s bubble restart may be exactly what Shai needs, and that may be exactly what the Thunder need.
I could continue rambling about multiple players and how they got better during this time. Steven Adams got the rest he needed, which means he’ll be more effective because the only thing that seemed to hold him back this season was his health. Darius Bazley is another player that has received praise from his teammates regarding his improvement as well.
The verdict: Oklahoma City hasn’t suffered from the things that other teams have. They have zero reported COVID cases, their team chemistry seems to be right where it was in March, key players have reportedly gotten better and one player that could take their already above-average defense over the top seems to be nearing a return.
I’m not willing to predict anything outrageous like a conference title, but I think it’s obvious that the Thunder aren’t going to go out sad like they have the last three seasons.