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The Thunder Regrouped

Trey Lyles #8 of the Detroit Pistons grabs a rebound against Luguentz Dort #5 and Kenrich Williams #34 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter at Little Caesars Arena on December 06, 2021 in Detroit, Michigan.
Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Jeff Van Gundy was at his Jeff Van Gundiest doing Sixers-Hawks commentary Friday evening. Our king was on his throne, handing down takes, decreeing the imaginary rule changes that have come to define his rule. The spirit would move him and Van Gundy would simply say “Players who are good should be exempt from fouling out,” and “What if coaches could overturn a defensive three-second violation by challenging the referee to a game of H-O-R-S-E,” or whatever. The usual.

He took up a new cause when play-by-play announcer Beth Mowins highlighted some of the upcoming games on the NBA’s national TV schedule. “We can’t put Oklahoma City on national TV!” Van Gundy cried, disgusted. “They just lost by—no. That’s where the commissioner has to come in and take that off of TV. That’s a horrible game and Oklahoma City just lost by 73 points.” When Mowins interjected with a diplomatic if somewhat pathetic point about the Thunder’s “good young talent … that they’re trying to [pause] bring about,” Van Gundy shut her down with an “Oh, stop! Stop!”

Still, after all that, Van Gundy had only half-recognized the NBA’s crime in putting this game in the spotlight. The league put the Thunder on national TV and it put them on national TV in the same game as the Detroit Pistons, who entered Monday night’s nationally televised pukefest with a cool 4-18 record to the Thunder’s 6-16. Viewed another way, it was a brilliant move to confine the very worst basketball has to offer to the smallest sliver of time and space possible. The poison was intense, but it was also localized and concentrated. Each team sought to end an eight-game losing streak, and league rules mandated that one of them would. The last time we saw the Thunder, as Van Gundy pointed out, they had just announced plans to “regroup” and be “back at it Monday” after losing a game by more points than any NBA team in history ever has.

Jeff Van Gundy may be interested to know that the Thunder had the last laugh. He may also not be interested to know anything about the actual game played between the Thunder and Pistons, which should never be spoken of again, and he would be justified in feeling this way and far from alone. To the TV viewer’s eye, roughly 30 people were in the building while the game unfolded. Ten of them were on the court playing basketball; the other 20 served in some coaching, sitting on the bench, PA announcing, or officiating capacity. Anyone who paid to attend will surely be too ashamed to speak of it even to close friends or family.

But I will speak of it, and bravely share what ended up being a kind of heartwarming bounceback story, while also being exactly the pukefest that Van Gundy foresaw. The Pistons held an 18-point lead in the second quarter and would go on to lose by nine. This happened because OKC followed up literally the worst statistical performance in NBA history with a similarly strange one.

This time, though, it was good. The Thunder are now proud owners of this season’s record for highest team field-goal percentage in a quarter, at 89 percent! Regroup and back at it Monday, indeed. Days ago, the Thunder nearly swept the podium for the NBA’s all-time lowest individual plus-minus. Last night, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey back in the lineup, they scored 42 points in the fourth quarter on 17-of-19 shooting. “There’s a randomness to that just like there’s a randomness to shooting any night,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault, asked about the team’s 13 (!!!) straight made field goals in that quarter. Perhaps this counts as regression to mean. Probably it is just playing the Pistons.

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