'Helluva coincidence': OKC Thunder's season resumes just as it stopped — against the Utah Jazz
Billy Donovan still has his notes from March 11. But even with a thorough scouting report, Utah was difficult to game plan against that night.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert (illness) was listed as questionable on the pregame injury report. Attacking the teeth of the Jazz defense would be less daunting with Gobert out of the lineup, so Donovan was asked how Gobert’s uncertain status affected the Thunder.
“They’ve always had size and length and physicality at their center spot,” Donovan said before tip-off. “So regardless of who’s there we’ll have to do a good job making good decisions at the basket.”
Gobert wasn’t there to protect the rim. He wasn’t even at the arena. The vague “illness” was COVID-19, and at 7:37 p.m., Thunder public address announcer Mario Nanni told fans the game had been postponed “due to unforeseen circumstances.”
Postponed until 2:30 p.m. Saturday, when the Thunder and Jazz finally play the game that never was.
“It’s a helluva coincidence that that’s who our first game is against,” Thunder point guard Chris Paul said.
Coincidence? More like cosmic symmetry. The Thunder started the season against the Jazz, stopped the season against the Jazz and will now restart the season against the Jazz. The Thunder’s first-round playoff opponent as things stand? The Jazz.
There were 140 days between the Thunder-Jazz season opener and season suspension, and 143 days between the suspension and Saturday.
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“Will we go out there on the court and like hug it out and all that? I doubt it,” Paul said. “I talk to Donovan Mitchell pretty often, but once you get out there on the court it’s time to hoop.”
Hugs in the bubble aren’t advised anyway, but the Thunder and Jazz won’t be able to shake the historical connection they formed that night in Oklahoma City.
Moving on, though, might be easier after Saturday.
“I remember being so ready to go, fired up, completely warmed up, sweating, and then it all got put to a hold,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “So I think I’ll have the same enthusiasm, if not more, to get back out there.”
“Definitely a memorable night,” Hamidou Diallo said, “and it’s definitely one to keep in the notes. But I can’t keep stressing enough how excited we are to be playing.”
“We’ve been in the gym for a long time getting ready for this game,” Luguentz Dort said.
“We just want to get it out the way,” said Nerlens Noel. “We want to finally take care of that game.”
The Jazz got its first chance at closure Thursday night with a 106-104 win against the Pelicans. Gobert recorded the first and last points of the game.
“Life works in mysterious ways,” he said afterward.
It was the first of 88 seeding games that will be played at Disney World over the next two weeks. Each of the 22 teams invited to Orlando will play eight games before the bubble shrinks to 16 playoff teams in mid-August.
Oklahoma City (40-24) is among a glob of teams — with Utah, Denver, Houston and Dallas — separated by four games or fewer in the Western Conference.
The Thunder surged up the standings thanks to a 34-13 record after Thanksgiving, but the season started slowly in Salt Lake City.
A new-look Thunder group, without Russell Westbrook and Paul George, scored 12 points in the first quarter of a 100-95 loss. Of the 256 quarters the Thunder has played, the first quarter of that first game in Utah was its lowest-scoring quarter of the season.
Donovan, thinking back to OKC’s woes that October night, said his team scrimmaged as much as it could leading up to the game. But he was still trying to figure out where everyone fit on a roster with nine new players, including Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.
“Those things just took time,” Donovan said. “And as much as we tried to expedite it in training camp, you’re never really gonna be able to do that until you start playing different opponents.”
After a four-month layoff, Donovan said the same theory applies. The Thunder’s three scrimmages helped, but they’re nothing like the real thing.
“Utah will give us a really good indication over a 48-minute game of where we’re at,” Donovan said, “and how much more work needs to be done.”
As for the game plan, Donovan can finally reference the notes he’s been holding onto.
Thunder vs. Jazz
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla.
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37), ESPN (Cox 29)