Thunder Beat Heat, Clinch 1st-Round Playoff Matchup with Rockets

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistAugust 13, 2020

Oklahoma City Thunder's Dennis Schroder (17) and Chris Paul (3) platys against the Boston Celtics during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March, 8, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder's feel-good story will continue after the team clinched a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets after a 116-115 win over the Miami Heat on Wednesday.

The Rockets and Thunder will be on the 4-5 line of the West, with seeding not mattering because there is no home-court advantage in the Orlando, Florida, bubble.

The Thunder were already locked into a playoff spot when the NBA season resumed July 30, but their final position could have shifted anywhere between the third seed down to the seventh spot based on results from the eight seeding games.

Expectations were low for the Thunder coming into this season after a summer of reshaping the future direction of their roster.

Coming off a third straight first-round playoff loss last year, there were questions about the long-term outlook in Oklahoma City. Rather than try to run things back with Paul George and Russell Westbrook one more time, general manager Sam Presti took a pragmatic approach with his roster.

Some of that came out of George's request to be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers to play alongside Kawhi Leonard. That deal landed Oklahoma City two immediate contributors in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, as well as five future first-round draft picks.

The next domino that fell was Westbrook being traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, two future first-round draft picks and two pick swaps in 2021 and 2025.

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The Thunder nucleus of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari turned out to be one of the most formidable trios in the Western Conference. Paul silenced any questions about his ability to be an impact player in his mid-30s.

As important as Paul turned out to be, the most important factor for the Thunder in their run to the postseason was Gilgeous-Alexander's emergence as a foundation piece.

Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters the turning point for his season came in a Jan. 13 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves when he recorded a triple-double of 20 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists.

"Coach (Billy Donovan) had challenged me before the game to fill up the stat sheet more and do more things," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "Because he thought, as well as myself thought, that I was (capable of more than) what I was doing."

The Thunder developed into one of the best all-around teams in the NBA over the course of this season as their nucleus learned to play together.

Paul is their go-to veteran playmaker late in games who can score or facilitate. Gilgeous-Alexander is becoming a more aggressive offensive player in just his second season. Gallinari is an electric scorer who stretches the floor from deep.

There have been better teams in the Western Conference this season, but the Thunder have the ingredients to make a lot of noise in the playoffs because of the many different ways they can win games.