The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Western Conference road trip ended in a three-game losing streak but was perhaps the most fulfilling losing road trip in Thunder history. The rebuilding team is (11-15) but could be knocking on a .500 record if those games, two of which were decided in overtime, would’ve fallen in a different direction.
Sunday night, following the trend from the past week, OKC was set to play one of the top teams in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks, but finally back within the walls of the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Just like the last handful of games, the Thunder were shorthanded with only nine players. The already young and inexperienced Thunder missed two regular starters, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who averages a team-high 22.8 points per game. The other, George Hill, averages 11.8 points and serves as one of two veteran leaders on the Thunder.
Against the Bucks, the Thunder played the same way they played on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets. However, they didn’t stall in the second half. They weathered the Bucks’ inevitable run, stuck to their gameplan, and pulled out the biggest win of the season against the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Again, with nine players.
The Thunder aren’t projected to be very good this season, and while they’ve overachieved, they still sit second to last in the Western Conference. That’s fine. Considering the Thunder’s state and the fact that they own the most draft picks in NBA history over the next several seasons, this is probably what general manager Sam Presti would prefer. Meanwhile, the team is exciting to watch, and the unfamiliar names are getting better in their increased roles.
The Thunder’s supporting cast, the players that weren’t recognizable to the casual Thunder fan at the beginning of the season, are the players that have kept this season exciting.
“We don’t have any expectations. That’s what makes this fun for us.” Said Thunder forward Justin Jackson. “We know that no one thinks we can compete against the best teams, but we’re here to let them know that we can. Whether win wins or lose, we’re always going to be competitive.”
Justin Jackson, a third-year player who has played 16 games for the Thunder in varying minutes ranging from four to 33, has had two-straight games scoring 20 or more points and two-straight games leading the Thunder in scoring.
Jackson doesn’t spectacularly do anything. He does what’s needed for the team, depending on the game. In the absence of OKC’s primary offensive option, Jackson has filled that role over the last couple of games.
Kenrich Williams has emerged as a reliable option for the Thunder. He’s lived up to the name ‘Kenny Hustle’ because that’s what he does nightly for the Thunder. Like Jackson, Williams is a team guy that fills whatever void the Thunder have nightly. Although Williams tallied 24 points against the Lakers, he’s not known as a scoring option like Jackson is. He’s a guy that’s going to take on the most challenging defensive assignment on the team, outside of Luguentz Dort. He’s a guy that’s going to dive for loose balls, pull down offensive rebounds, and make the extra pass.
Other players that have played massive roles in keeping Thunder basketball entertaining are Isaiah Roby, who has shown the ability to play as OKC’s starting center. Hamidou Diallo is the most consistent offensive option off the bench, and Mike Muscala, who’s found a rhythm and an identity on this Thunder team.
Again, the Thunder may not be the best team we’ve seen since 2008, but they’re certainly entertaining to watch, and you have to give the role players credit for keeping things interesting while the team is shorthanded.