'We control our destiny': Why the Thunder's future looks awfully bright at NBA All-Star break
The Thunder had the Spurs in trouble, but the tide turns fast in the NBA. The Thunder led 99-97, less than 2½ minutes left in the game Thursday night, and the shot clock running down quickly.
The Thunder turned to its grizzled veteran. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA took a lob pass on the perimeter, drove past the arc guarded by Patty Mills, then stepped back for a 3-point shot. Gilgeous-Alexander nailed the deep ball and the Thunder had a five-point lead en route to a 107-102 victory.
SGA is 22 years old. His fellow starters at San Antonio were Theo Maledon, 19; Darius Bazley, 20; Luguentz Dort, 21; and Isaiah Roby, 23.
The victory was frustrating for Thunderheads who know this season is about lottery positioning and getting a prime pick for a deep-at-the-top 2021 draft. But it’s also comforting to know that even with a patchwork roster, the Thunder has a young star and a winning culture even with yearlings.
The Thunder’s record is 15-21 at the all-star break. Too good to have the best lottery chances. Not good enough to challenge for a playoff berth, which is fool’s gold anyway, since four or five Western Conference playoff teams will be overmatched at the start of postseason.
But even without lottery luck, the Thunder can take solace that its young talent isn’t being beat down with defeat.
“It just shows to our resilience,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 33 points and now has 75 in two games against San Antonio. “We’re a group of guys that are competitors. They just want to win. Regardless of how the game’s going. Our way, not our way, Falling, not falling. That’s something we look to every night, playing a full 48.”
Look at it this way. The Spurs are the franchise that over the last decade has been most compared to the Thunder. Culture, sustained success, stability, scouting. Those kinds of things.
The one primary difference, of course, is that San Antonio won the 2014 NBA title, to go with four others from 1999-2007, while the Thunder has yet to hoist its first league banner.
But while the Spurs wouldn’t trade their past for the Thunder’s past, the Spurs most definitely would trade their future for the Thunder’s future.
San Antonio has some fascinating young pieces itself. Dejounte Murray. Keldon Johnson. Lonnie Walker IV. But when the Spurs were virtually forced to trade their superstar, Kawhi Leonard, they didn’t get near the draft-pick haul or the star potential (SGA) that the Thunder got in a similar situation for Paul George. When an all-star aged, the Spurs held on to LaMarcus Aldridge, while the Thunder traded first Russell Westbrook and then Chris Paul, for more draft bounty.
The short-term hit was mighty. San Antonio is a better team than the Thunder; the Spurs likely will make the West playoffs in 2021. But the long-term benefit is vast for OKC.
And oh yeah, the Thunder still can compete. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after the game Thursday complimented OKC for its execution, discipline and aggression.
“High compliment coming from a team as disciplined and executes as well as they do,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I thought we were really good . Just our resiliency. Give our guys credit.
“We were down 11 at halftime. It’s easy to pack it in, the (All-Star) break two quarters away. Our guys buckled down, kept playing. That’s the thing that’s been the marker of this group all season. It was on display tonight.”
That’s reassuring during this Thunder rebuild. In places like Detroit and Minnesota and Washington, the rebuild means mental as much as physical. Get some talent, then try to build a culture. Not so in OKC. Only the talent is missing.
“One of the things we know, one of our No. 1 go-to sayings, is it’s 0-0 every day,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Opportunity every day. The game starts 0-0. We control our destiny.”
The Thunder isn’t losing enough to make things real easy. But the Thunder, starting five guys aged 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23, beat a West playoff team on the road, not because of physical talent, but because it knows how to play and wants to win.
That’s going to make this rebuild go much more smoothly.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.