Suddenly, Thunder shocking (again)
When it has mattered, Oklahoma City's NBA history has crushed expectation. There are signs it's happening now.
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Maybe it’s just what the Thunder do.
Or it’s what they do when good things happen.
They don’t just win.
They don’t just make a move.
They shocked year two in Oklahoma City, the 2009-10 season, having won 23 games the year before, but coming back with Kevin Durant in his third season, Russell Westbrook in his second and James Harden in his first, winning 50 games and pushing the defending champion Lakers to the limit the first round of the playoffs.
They shocked three consecutive off-seasons beginning in 2016, first signing Westbrook to a new long-term deal in the wake of Durant’s departure, leading into his original season-long triple-double and MVP award.
Next, making deals to bring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City to play alongside Westbrook. Next, signing George to a max extension that should, probably, in retrospect be categorized as “overshocking.”
OKC didn’t get beyond the first round of the playoffs any of the campaigns that followed, but the arena was full, the postseason still reached and great fun was had.
They shocked the next season on the court, leveraging the short-term stays of Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder into an impossible tied-for-fourth-place finish in the Western Conference.
And Saturday at American Airlines Center, facing Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, the Thunder, for one unthinkable night (at least), shocked again.
As reported by The Oklahoman’s Joe Mussatto, per ESPN Stats & Info, over the previous 9,976 NBA games, spanning 25 seasons, in which one team led another by at least 16 points in the last four minutes, the trailing team had won only once.
Yet, from 97-81 down until Darius Bazley made two free throws with 3:57 remaining, OKC closed on an 18-2 run to reach overtime before prevailing 117-111.
More shocking, it happened on the back of the last player to make the roster out of training camp, who did not even enter the game until 4:53 remained.
Waived by Philadelphia after averaging 11.1 minutes over 55 games last season, Joe managed to remain in the league via the Thunder, but had played just seven minutes through OKC’s first five games.
One aspect of Joe’s stat-line — plus-minus — may be every bit as uncommon as an NBA team coming back to win after trailing by 16 with less than four minutes remaining.
In Joe’s 9:04 on the court, the Thunder outscored the Mavs by an astonishing 24 points.
On a night Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played 41 minutes and scored 38 points (and dished nine assists, too) and Lu Dort defended ferociously, becoming the primary reason Doncic finished 8 of 23 from the floor without making a 3, Joe was a driver too, hitting all four of his shots, three of them 3-pointers, and all three of his free throws to finish with 15 points.
He grabbed two rebounds and dished an assist, as well.
“‘Anytime I need you, I could throw you in the game,’” Joe said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault had told him. “And today was that day.
“Him having that trust in me and me being ready, I was able to go in there and give my team a good lift.”
The searing question now is if Saturday was just one shocking result or the biggest sign to date of a shocking season.
Because, though the season could have gotten away quickly, it suddenly hasn’t and how it hasn’t may bode very well for the very near future.
Among the conventional wisdom entering the season, part of it included the Thunder being bound to lose early, the schedule too tough.
Minnesota figures to be a playoff team, perhaps a No. 4 to 6 seed. Denver remains one of the best teams in the Western Conference and comes with the task of slowing reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. The Los Angeles Clippers are the betting favorite to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Those three opponents made up OKC’s first five games prior to traveling to Dallas.
The Thunder fell away and at home to the Timberwolves and away at the Nuggets, putting a disastrous start on the table, the Clippers due in Oklahoma City to face them twice in three nights.
No problem, the Thunder won both.
Then took down the Mavs.
Yes, Kawhi Leonard did not play in either victory over the Clips, but does he ever play, already missing 4 of 6 games this season?
Nor did Paul George in the first one, though he was back to face his old team in the second, just not able to keep his current team from losing.
After that, a comeback from the abyss that made it three straight and a perfectly fine, given the opponents, 3-3 record.
Other fine signs abound.
• Gilgeous-Alexander looks like an All-Star, averaging 31 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists, playing a stout 36.6 minutes per outing.
• OKC has won back-to-back-to-back without the services of second-year star Josh Giddey, who suffered a sprained ankle in the return game against Minnesota and figures to be back soon.
• The Thunder have pulled even for the season despite shooting a 29th-in-the-league 29.5 percent from 3-point land. A year ago they were dead last but still better than that at 32.3 percent. Even if their long-distance shooting’s bound to stink comparatively, it’s also bound to get better.
• The Orlando Magic, 1-6 after seven games, possibly the league’s worst team, are the Thunder’s next opponent Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. Every win matters. every win breeds new confidence and another one should be forthcoming.
Management my still be all right with the season getting away.
Daigneault’s substitution patterns aren’t patterns at all. Players may hardly play one game, yet start the next one. Watching, it’s sort of all in their hands. Though a flip hasn’t been switched to bring another tank, nor has it been flipped to win now.
But the Thunder are winning now.
Maybe the shocks keep coming.