The Oklahoma City Thunder were one of the hottest teams in the NBA before the pandemic hit.
The Thunder had won eight of 10 and climbed to the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference standings before the season was delayed. Now, they hope they can pick up where they left off as play resumes in Florida.
“I think it will take a little time, but we’ve got such a great group of guys,” Thunder guard Chris Paul said. “We’re very unselfish, play hard, play together. The more time we get here playing, remembering some of the stuff that we like to do together — I think it will all take care of itself.”
The Thunder were riding the wave of a rejuvenated Paul and a rapidly improving Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Paul, now 35, averages 17.7 points and 6.8 assists and was an All-Star. Gilgeous-Alexander, a second-year guard, averages a team-best 19.3 points.
The Thunder lead the league with 16 wins after trailing heading into the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City also is 4-0 in overtime this season.
“When those moments come when there is adversity, we’ve got a really good way about ourselves in terms of keeping our composure, keeping our chemistry, guys working together, pulling for each other, guys fighting to win,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I think everybody understands what’s important to the group.”
WHERE WE WERE
Balance has been a strength all season. In addition to Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari averages 19.2 points and reserve Dennis Schroder averages 19.0 points. Steven Adams, a defensive anchor at center, averages 10.9 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Oklahoma City didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline, so the team benefited from continuity and went 7-2 after the All-Star break.
From January 7 to February 25, Oklahoma City won all nine of its road games. After the streak was snapped at Milwaukee, the Thunder won their next three road games before the season was halted.
Thunder guard Andre Roberson might be ready to contribute after being out for 2½ years.
Roberson, an NBA all-defense second-team selection during the 2016-17 season, initially suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in the knee in January 2018. He had a procedure in October that year after a setback in the recovery from the initial surgery.
The Thunder had hoped he’d be ready earlier this season, but progress was slow, and he left the team to rehab for a while.
Now, he’s in Orlando, where Donovan said he handled the first week of practice well.
“I think he’s trying to gain confidence right now in terms of being out from playing competitive basketball for two years, of just really him fitting into the team, trying to help the team, different things he can do to be effective, getting that timing back, understanding what it’s like playing against contact,” Donovan said.
Roberson was known as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders before the injury. In 39 games during the 2017-18 season, he averaged 5.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals.
LEAVING THE BUBBLE
Dennis Schroder has told the Thunder he plans to leave the bubble for the birth of his second child. The baby is expected to arrive near the end of the re-started regular season.
“Of course he should do that,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “Of course he should be there for that. That’s much more important than any basketball game.”
Schroder is the league’s top scorer among reserves, and Donovan has pushed for him to be considered for Sixth Man of the Year.
Schroder said he wants to eventually return to the team, though Presti said he will understand if that changes.
Chris Paul is also the president of the National Basketball Players Association, meaning he has had to balance getting ready to play with league-wide concerns. Donovan said he’s impressed with the way Paul has balanced his duties.
“I don’t know if there’s been maybe another president in the history of the players association that’s had to deal with something like this,” Donovan said. “I know there’s been lockouts, but this is really something that’s totally unique and different, and I think the way Chris navigated through all this to try to really help the players and the league get back to playing has been remarkable.”
Lu Dort has been thriving as a rookie.
The Canadian guard signed a two-way deal with the Thunder last July after playing one season at Arizona State, and he has since signed a full-time NBA deal.
Dort has averaged 6.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.8 steals this season. Oklahoma City has posted a 16-5 record with him in the starting lineup.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports