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OKC Thunder: NBA return means Chris Paul and Co. must recapture synergy

With Chris Paul (3) leading the way, the Thunder surged to a 40-24 record and fifth place in the Western Conference before the NBA suspended the season March 11. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]
With Chris Paul (3) leading the way, the Thunder surged to a 40-24 record and fifth place in the Western Conference before the NBA suspended the season March 11. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

When last we saw the Thunder, players and coaches were heading off the hardwood at The Peake.

That tends to happens after a game, not before it.

But of course, that was the surreal scene on March 11. Moments before tipoff between the Thunder and the Jazz, everything stopped. Referees huddled with Thunder staffers, then with the head coaches, then sent everyone back to the locker rooms.

Eventually, the game was postponed.

Ditto for the NBA season.

Close your eyes, and you can see images from that night so clearly. Chris Paul walking toward the Jazz bench to ask “What’s wrong with Rudy?” Billy Donovan standing with the officials. Referees taking their warmup jackets and leaving the court.

Even now through the fog of the coronavirus shutdown, we can remember that night.

But what of the Thunder?

Do you remember how well it was playing before the stoppage? Can you see the comeback from an 18-point deficit at Boston or the throttling of the Knicks in New York? Do you remember the way OKC performed in the clutch? The savvy of Chris Paul? The evolution of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?

There are so many things about this team that may have been forgotten over the past few months, so as we start to focus on the restart of the NBA season, let’s clear the haze a bit — the Thunder was playing some seriously quality ball when the world came to a screeching halt.

We’re talking high-level hoops.

Excellent. Grade A. Blue ribbon.

The Thunder was winning at a clip almost unmatched. From Thanksgiving until the shutdown, OKC was 34-13. That’s a winning percentage of .723, and during that stretch, only two teams were better.

The Bucks: 38-9, 80.9 percent.

The Lakers: 33-12, 73.3 percent.

Those are the teams most pundits, both professional and amateur, believe will meet in the NBA Finals. So, that’s some heady company for the Thunder.

How did the Thunder do it?

The way most quality teams do: with consistency on both offense and defense.

The Thunder wasn’t elite on either end of the court, but from Thanksgiving until the season stopped, it ranked 10th in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating. There were only three other teams during that same stretch with top-10 rankings in both.

Lakers. Celtics. Clippers.

The difference between those teams and this Thunder team is star power. Chris Paul is great, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be great. But even with Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams and so many others playing above expectations, this team has won because the sum is greater than the part.

It’s cool to see.

But that leads to one big question that lingers as the NBA readies to return: how quickly can the Thunder recapture that synergy?

Every team will be faced with issues when it comes to getting back into playing shape. This has been a long layoff. There will be rust. But you would think teams with multiple superstars — Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and such — have an advantage. They can lean on that greatness if needed. They can give LeBron or Kwahi or Jimmy H. the ball and say, “Go.” And if those guys don’t do it, AD, PG and Russ are there to help.

Teams like the Thunder don’t have that luxury.

Doesn’t mean they can’t be successful, but they’ll have to be further along than the competition when they return to play. They’ll have to be in late-season form after more than four months off.

How important is that cohesion?

The Thunder lacked it for the first month-plus of the season, and the result was a 6-11 record to start the year. Things clicked the day after Thanksgiving, and the Thunder has been riding high ever since.

So, where will the Thunder be when the games start again?

Obviously, the players and coaches have an understanding after 64 games together how this bunch is the best version of itself. They recognize roles. They realize strengths. They have the recipe for their secret sauce.

How quickly can they get it simmering again?

It would’ve been fascinating to see how the Thunder would’ve finished the regular season had the coronavirus not shut down everything. This bunch had won eight of its last 10 games and was playing great ball when it walked onto the court at The Peake for that game against the Jazz.

Everyone left before the ball was ever tipped, of course, and now we are left to wonder what version of the Thunder we will see next.

Will they struggle with fog of the shutdown?

Or will they see through it and return to what made them great?

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›