ORLANDO — The Oklahoma City Thunder have been in the Magic Kingdom now for 25 days. They’ve practiced all but three of those days as well as played in three scrimmages and one seeding game — all wins.
119 days separated the March 11 suspension of play and the Thunder resuming team play. For nearly one-third of a year, Oklahoma City wasn’t executing screen-and-rolls, defensive rotations or simply going 100 percent, full-contact against one another.
When OKC met for the first time on the practice floor as a team, there was some obvious rust.
“Our timing and execution are not where it needs to be,” Billy Donovan said on July 9. “We have to do a much better job with each practice to try and get back to where we were at the end of February, end of March.”
To add to the list of adversity, Dennis Schröder announced that he is planning to leave (sometime in the near future) Orlando to see the birth of his second child. The Thunder have prepared for that by allowing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to be the primary ball handler on the floor without Schröder or Chris Paul.
So we have: 119 days off, losing a key player in the future which forces some altered situational practices, playing in an odd environment and as Donovan said throughout the regular season, a team that doesn’t “have a large margin for error.”
But in three scrimmages and one seeding game, OKC has looked like a well-oiled machine.
“Their energy and spirit have been phenomenal,” Donovan said on Sunday. “I see significant growth from where we were in early July to now. We just have to continue to improve.”
When the season began last October, Donovan’s challenge was trying to force chemistry and cohesion with a group that welcomed nine new players to OKC. The Thunder started 8-12 in their first 20 games. Afterwards, they won 33 of their next 45 games — including yesterday’s win over the Utah Jazz.
In the beginning of the season, OKC had the same players — some with no experience like Darius Bazley — but no chemistry. As the weeks wore on, the Thunder developed one of the more genuine rapports in the league, thanks in large part to Donovan and Chris Paul.
Simply put, the Thunder should quickly resemble the team we watched back in early March.
“Nothing is ever perfect,” Donovan added. “They’re incredible but they can be better. Much better”
He’s right. While yesterday’s 110-94 win over the Utah Jazz was refreshing and perhaps cathartic for the Thunder fanbase, there was still some rust.
“Earlier in the year, we would blow leads in the third quarter that we had gained in the first half,” Donovan said. “Yesterday, Utah missed three wide open 3’s early in the third. If they hit those, all the sudden it’s a 15, 12-point game. I don’t think we sustained our level of play in the second half.”
How does Donovan propose OKC improve? The answer mirrors Andre Roberson’s hurdle — stamina and conditioning.
“The stamina of doing it for extended periods of time,” Donovan said. “Our pace both offensively and defensively was very good. We just couldn’t hold it as the game wore on. That’s where we’re trying to get back to.”
All this is more impressive when you see the Thunder’s starting five combined to shoot 53 percent from the field (27-of-51). Lu Dort was tasked to guard Donovan Mitchell as well as Jazz perimeter players Mike Conley and Emmanuel Mudiay — Dort held all three to 1-of-9 shooting (0-3 from 3) in 8:20 minutes of primary on-ball defending.
So many things went well against a quality opponent, yet Donovan and the Thunder agree there is still work to do. With more time and reps, OKC could very well do more than simply resemble the team at the beginning of March.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports