Closeness, chemistry propel young Oklahoma City Thunder toward the playoffs

The temperature sat right at zero when the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled into their hotel in Minneapolis on Jan. 19, but the wind chill made it feel like minus 15, the kind of Minnesota cold that cuts through even the warmest outerwear.

The Thunder were at the tail end of a four-game road trip that started with two straight losses in Los Angeles. An important game against the Timberwolves loomed the next day. The weather and the duration of the trip gave the Thunder players all the reasons they needed to spend a quiet night at the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. But the team was made aware that rookie center Chet Holmgren’s high school was holding a jersey retirement ceremony for him that evening to celebrate his career at Minnehaha Academy and his rise to the NBA.

As coach Mark Daigneault and Thunder officials gauged the players’ interest in venturing out into the cold Minnesota night, the response was unanimous.

“They were just like, when’s the bus coming?” Daigneault said.

So when Holmgren arrived at his alma mater for the ceremony, he did not come alone. Everyone from superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to general manager Sam Presti and teammates up and down the roster rolled with him.

The show of support was emblematic of the Thunder’s rise to the top of the Western Conference this season. The vibes are percolating on one of the youngest rosters in the league, a team whose top seven minutes getters are all 25 or under and are never out of a game.

The day after Holmgren’s celebration, OKC came back from down 11 points in the fourth quarter to defeat the Timberwolves. They erased a 23-point deficit to beat Toronto on Sunday and wiped out a 13-point deficit against Nikola Jokić-less Denver last week. They have a league-high 10 victories after trailing by double digits this season.

Every postgame interview with a star of the game has become an all-are-invited event. On a team with so many players at or around the same age, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the competition for playing time, attention and that next big contract bring wrinkles of tension into the team’s fabric. Instead, the common threads weave together like Egyptian cotton.

“We win together, we lose together, we struggle together, we come together in adversity, and they just do everything together,” Daigneault said. “And that’s a beautiful thing.”

There is much more winning than losing going on these days in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are 35-16 and have the fourth-ranked defense, the sixth-ranked offense and the second-best net rating in the league. Those metrics paint the picture of a team that should be considered a contender right now, to say nothing of the bright future that seems to lie ahead with the bounty of draft picks and young talent that Presti has assembled.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an All-NBA First-Team player last season and has emerged as one of the favorites for MVP honors in his sixth season. He is averaging 31.1 points, 6.6 assists, 5.7 rebounds and a league-leading 2.3 steals per game and has developed into one of the most difficult-to-guard scorers in the league. He is lethal from the midrange and plays the game at his pace, frustrating defenders while he slithers right around them to get to the rim or the free-throw line.

He might be the perfect star for Oklahoma City because the only thing flashy about him is his fashion sense. He will wear leather pants and unbutton his shirt to the navel so he can show off the diamond-encrusted medallions that hang on his neck. But he shuns media attention, a quiet Canadian uninterested in self-promotion, which has endeared him to the small-market community and his teammates. He strutted into Minnehaha Academy in a leather coat with a big fur hood, never hesitating to make the trip with his crew.

“We all care and love each other,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And we want the best for the guy beside us in the locker room. I think when you can feel that and you know that about the guys around you when you step on the court, it’s easier to play hard for them.”

He is surrounded by teammates who fit his game like the do-rag on his head.

Josh Giddey is an exceptional passer at the point. Jalen Williams is a rugged and versatile defender who has leaped in his second season, can stretch the floor while hitting 45 percent of his 3-pointers and make plays in the half court.

Holmgren has fully recovered from a foot injury that kept him out all of last season and has quickly become one of the best rim protectors in the NBA with a highly competitive nature that brings an edge on the court. Lu Dort is a terrific perimeter defender who is hitting 39 percent of his 3s and Isaiah Joe, Cason Wallace, Kenrich Williams and Jaylin Williams give the team remarkable depth.

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Chet Holmgren, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Thunder are no longer a secret in the Western Conference. (Layne Murdoch Jr. / NBAE via Getty Images)

Orchestrating it all is Daigneault, the former Thunder assistant now in his fourth season as coach. He was not a household name when Presti hired him at age 35 in 2020, which gave some the impression that he would be the bridge coach while the Thunder tore down and rebuilt from the Russell Westbrook era.

All he has done in these three-plus seasons is establish himself as one of the best coaches in the league, a chess player of the highest order who has defined roles for the players and built a gorgeous offensive system filled with movement, passing and open shots.

The Thunder won 22 games in his first season in charge and 24 the next. They went 40-42 last season and lost to the Timberwolves in the Play-In Tournament to miss out as the No. 8-seeded team in the playoffs. All of that struggle has laid the groundwork for this season’s breakthrough.

“A couple of years ago when we lost a lot of games by a lot of points, we did a great job of playing all 48 minutes,” Daigneault said. “And, it kind of set a tone for the type of team we wanted to be in. Now we’re carrying that forward.”

The marked improvement and the closeness of the team could influence Presti’s approach leading to the trade deadline on Thursday. Oklahoma City could probably use some more size to help them match up against big teams like Minnesota and Denver in the playoffs.

Through a series of trades over the last few years, Presti has amassed 14 first-round picks and 21 second-rounders in the next seven drafts. Those are the kinds of assets that can push the Thunder to the front of the pack for any available player they might want to acquire.

That doesn’t mean the Thunder have to make a move. Their window is opening, so the decision that Presti and the team have to answer two questions. How open is it right now? How long do they think they can keep it open? This roster is so young and so talented, but Presti and Daigneault have yet to see them in a playoff environment. Perhaps that experience will give them even more clarity on what this team needs going forward.

The Thunder’s chemistry has to be a compelling element in the equation. Do they want to mess with the cohesion that this group has? Jalen Williams has invented a word for the bond this group shares: “Thunder-esque.” The implication is that the organization has always put a premium on playing together. This group embodies it, which gives Presti a lot to think about as the trade deadline looms.

“We’re just a close group,” Jalen Williams said. “We all love each other, so anything we can do to support each other and to be there so everybody knows that we have each other’s back the last one through 15.”

One of Daigneault’s favorite things to do during a long season is to walk into the locker room or hop onto the team bus, stop and just open his ears. The modern locker room and bus trips in the NBA can be quiet with players putting their heads down and scrolling on their phones or popping in earbuds and listening to music.

The Thunder communal gatherings are anything but quiet. Daigneault will sit back and listen to his players talking with each other, a soothing sound for a coach who believes the open lines of communication foster deeper understanding and trust in each other.

“I can’t hear what they’re saying, but there’s just a lot of, like, chatter,” Daigneault said. “They just like hanging. But then they compete together. When it’s time to go, it’s not fun and games when the ball goes up in the air. They’re ready to rock. It’s pretty cool.”

The closeness is breeding a fearlessness in these young Thunder. They never think they are out of a game, which means they will never think they are out of a series.

It’s easier to know that, if they get on you, they have your best interests at heart,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It’s easier for them to hold you accountable and it’s easier for you to hold them accountable, and then you get the best out of each other.”

Oklahoma City has missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons, the longest drought since the franchise relocated from Seattle in 2008-09. Barring an unfathomable collapse, that streak is going to come to an end in April.

Some will question if they have enough experience for the postseason. Some will wonder if they have enough size to go toe-to-toe with the best in the West. Arm in arm and step for step, the Thunder just keep marching forward together. And when it comes time to go at it in the playoffs, there will only be one question on their minds.

When’s the bus coming?

(Top photo of Jalen Williams, Jaylin Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)

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