Thunder set to being playoff push

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Dennis Schroder (17) and Chris Paul (3) talk during a game against the Boston Celtics March 8 in Boston. (AP Photo) 

After months of uncertainty, the NBA season has finally restarted.

The Thunder play their first of eight seeding games on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. against the Jazz in Orlando, Fla. The last time these teams were scheduled to meet was March 11, a game that was postponed after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 prior to tip-off.

The Thunder currently sit as the fifth seed in the Western Conference with a 40-24 record. These eight seeding games will be crucial to the Thunder in determining its playoff matchup, as the Nos. 3-6 seeds in the West are separated by just 2.5 games in the standings.

The Jazz, currently the fourth seed, won their first seeding game on Thursday, defeating the Pelicans 106-104.

Here are four storylines to follow as the Thunder gear up for their first game of the NBA restart:

1. Can the Thunder avoid a bottom-half seed in the West standings?

The Lakers will likely finish atop the standings after their 103-101 victory over the Clippers on Thursday night, and the Clippers are the second seed.

It's important for the Thunder to avoid finishing lower than the sixth seed to avoid a potential first-round matchup with either of Los Angeles' franchises.

The Thunder's biggest competition for a higher seed are the Rockets (the Thunder have the tie-breaker) and Mavericks. The three are essentially locked into a top-seven seed.

2. Can the Thunder succeed in Schroder's absence?

Schroder recently announced his intentions to leave the NBA bubble at Disney World upon the birth of his child. Schroder's wife, Ellen, is due anytime between Aug. 4 and Aug. 11.

An NBA player is permitted to leave the bubble for the birth of a child, according to the NBA’s health and safety protocol document. The player is required to quarantine for four days upon returning as long as they test negative for COVID-19 every day they’re away from campus.

The Thunder’s eight seeding games are scheduled between Aug. 1 and Aug. 14, which means Schroder will likely miss several games, and his absence could extend into the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17.

Schroder has made an impact for the Thunder this season, and is considered the frontrunner for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. He is the team’s third-leading scorer, averaging 19 points and a staple in the team’s three-guard lineup with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that coach Billy Donovan uses in close games.

Schroder's absence will likely mean more ball-handling duties for Paul and Gilgeous-Alexander, but the team will also need more production from bench players such as Darius Bazley and Hamidou Diallo.

3. Can the Thunder continue to win close games?

Prior to the shutdown, the Thunder were the best clutch team in the NBA.

The Thunder had the best clutch record in the league at 29-13, according to NBA.com. The NBA defines “clutch time” as any game separated by five points or less within the last five minutes of the game.

The ability to succeed in close games contributed significantly to the team’s ascension to the No. 5 seed. The Thunder’s most-used clutch lineup of Paul, Schroder, Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams outscored teams by nearly 30 points per-100 possessions in 177 minutes played this season, according to NBA.com.

That five-man lineup has been easily the Thunder’s most successful lineup this season. Without Schroder, the question will be if the Thunder can find another lineup that can replicate that success when it matters most.

4. How much of an impact will the restart have on the Thunder’s future?

Simply put, the Thunder have exceeded expectations this season.

After the trades of Russell Westbrook and Paul George last season, many expected the Thunder to use this season as a transition to an eventual rebuilding period. However, the team hasn’t just remained relevant, it also clinched a playoff berth for the 10th time in 11 seasons.

There are questions regarding the Thunder’s future after this season. Gallinari and Roberson will become unrestricted free agents after this season. The contracts for Adams, Schroder and Nerlens Noel all expire after the 2020-2021 season.

General Manager Sam Presti opted not to move any players at the NBA trade deadline in February, allowing the Thunder to remain competitive this season. If the team makes a playoff push at Disney World, does he look to make moves that keep this team competitive?

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