Remember the natural high you felt after the Thunder played their first non-scrimmage in the NBA bubble? It was a second Opening Day. Oklahoma City beat the brakes off the Utah Jazz on Aug. 1. On that day, high temperatures in OKC hovered around the mid-80s. Optimism was at an all-time high. Everything was awesome.
A lot has changed since then. The Thunder have been up and down. Key players have been in and out of the lineup. Plus, it felt like 100 degrees outside every day this week.
I can’t be the only one who feels some fatigue watching seeding games. You couldn’t really put too much stock in a 19-point win over the top-seeded Lakers or blowout losses to playoff hopefuls like Memphis or Phoenix.
Winning or losing the seeding games was never the point for the Thunder, a team in prime position for a postseason berth since the start of the month. How they competed as a collective is what matters most.
Judging by this metric Wednesday night, the Thunder seem to be in a good place.
First Takeaway: Losing ‘Lu’
Lu Dort has gone from undrafted free agent to fighting for a roster spot to starting two-guard all in less than a calendar year. When OKC faced the Lakers last week, Dort’s job was to face guard LeBron James. He has become the most important defensive player on the roster.
When Dort injured his right knee in a collision with Miami forward Jae Crowder in the first quarter of Wednesday’s game, the Thunder fanbase held its collective breath.
(This third tweet had nothing to do with Dort. I simply enjoyed this artist’s conception of Chris Fisher, Michael Cage and Nick Gallo.)
Dort didn’t return to game action Wednesday. After the game, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said he did not know the extent of Dort’s injury and that he will be getting an MRI.
As a first round playoff series against the Houston Rockets looms, a Thunder team without Dort would be a huge blow against an opponent with two former MVPs on their roster.
Second Takeaway: The Kids Are All Right
Thunder-Heat felt like watching an old school Rising Stars Challenge game. The young guns on both squads were filling it up and breaking opponents down. 20-year-old Darius Bazley (21 points, five made 3-pointers, nine rebounds) continues to play like a Monstar from Space Jam of late. 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (18 points on nine shot attempts) stayed out of foul trouble and stayed a step ahead of the defense when he drove to the cup.
23-year-old Bam Adebayo had a pedestrian game against OKC, but he has turned himself into a double-double machine (16.1 points, 10.3 rebounds) in his third year with the Heat. Meanwhile, Dort or not, no one had an answer for guarding 20-year-old Tyler Herro (30 points off the bench).
The NBA is in great hands.
Third Takeaway: Rethinking Postseason Success
Oklahoma City and Miami are not the favorites to emerge as the Western and Eastern Conference representatives in this year’s NBA Finals, but it wouldn’t be fair to count anything less than that as a failure at season’s end.
The Thunder were supposed to be a lottery team but are now locked in as the No. 5 seed out west. The Heat are young and talented but are wild cards to cause a ruckus in the eastern playoff bracket.
One road for one path to championship glory is just not realistic anymore. We went from watching super teams in Miami and the Bay Area win it all in the 2010s, but Toronto debunked the necessity of having one when the Raptors took home the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2019.
Every team has Google Maps now. There are several different paths teams can take to get to their desired destination.
The question is: Who will get there first?
Oklahoma City will face the Los Angeles Clippers at 5:30 p.m. Friday in the final seeding game before the playoffs begin on August 17. I’m sure it won’t be awkward at all. Nothing awkward about the matchup immediately comes to mind. It should be a totally normal game.