There’s time for NBA Playoff concerns. Now is the time for Thunder appreciation

There’s time for NBA Playoff concerns. Now is the time for Thunder appreciation

Securing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and finishing the regular season with 57 wins was worth celebrating Sunday.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Apr 15, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Apr 15, 2024, 6:00am CDT

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Chet Holmgren was talking Sunday about the Thunder not seeing its finish atop the Western Conference standings as an end goal, about the players and coaches keeping their eyes on where they’re trying to go.

Which is all good and fine.

This Thunder team, after all, has a chance to do big things in the playoffs.

But after a 135-86 blowout of Dallas that helped Oklahoma City put a bow not only on that top spot in the West but also on a Northwest Division title and a 57-win season — 57 wins! — there should have been some moments of celebration, some times of appreciation.

So, were there?

“I mean, yeah,” Holmgren said as he unzipped his black jacket just a bit, “we got these little shirts.”

He pulled back his jacket to reveal a blue shirt with a Thunder logo and big, bold letters: 2023-24 NBA NORTHWEST DIVISION CHAMPIONS.

“We took a team picture in the locker room,” he added.

As well they should’ve. And if they hollered and high-fived and hugged, too, all the better.

This bunch has every reason to celebrate, relishing the moment and basking in the glow. Only two seasons removed from winning only 24 games, the Thunder is the top seed in the Wild, Wild West. Ahead of the defending champion Nuggets. Ahead of the talented Timberwolves. Ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks and Suns and Pelicans and Lakers and Kings and Warriors.

But before anyone starts worrying about the good and the bad of potential playoff matchups — the first-round opponent could be any of the four teams in the Play-In Tournament: Pels, Lakers, Kings, Warriors — we should all take a moment to appreciate and celebrate what the Thunder has accomplished.

Winning 57 games was a 17-win improvement over last season, which was a 16-win improvement over the season before. Only three other teams in NBA history have had back-to-back seasons where they’ve bettered their record by 16 wins or more. It’s the kind of jumps that rarely happen in the league.

And being able to do such a thing in the West?

Playing in the Western Conference is like being in a seven-month-long heavyweight bout. Every opponent is landing body blows, knockout punches that can fell even the best of teams, so coming out at the top requires skill and grit and tenacity.

The Thunder had all that and more.

Put it this way: seven teams in the West finished with 49 or more wins while only three in the East did.

“The West was great this year,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, adding that he told the team after Sunday’s game that it should be incredibly proud. “To win a division is really, really difficult.

“These guys have worked really hard. They’ve done it together. They’ve embodied really everything we want to be about in the process. So it’s not just the fact that we accomplished that, but it was the way we accomplished it. Gives us something we can build on moving forward.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s not talk about the future just yet. Let’s not move forward. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Let’s relish this a bit more.

Think of all the great games this season. The back-to-back wins at Golden State. The blowout of the Lakers. The pair of wins at Denver, the second bigger and better than the first. The big wins against the Clippers and the Wolves and the Knicks.

And that was all before the first of the year.

This was a team that won games in bunches. It never went on a lengthy stretch, nothing that reached double digits, but seven times they had win streaks of four games or more, including two that lasted six games. 

The Thunder had just one losing streak that lasted longer than three games.

All that to say, this bunch played a lot of really good basketball.

That was on the mind of at least one Thunder on Sunday.

“Just kind of taking the time to reflect on a long season, the season goes by fast and I think it’s easy to kind of forget the highs and lows of it,” Jalen Williams said. “It was a good celebration just reflecting on the good and the bad of the season and then just trying to enjoy that because obviously, we’re gonna have to get back in that mode of trying to win games.”

Hold it. There’s that talk of the future and the playoffs again. Let’s not go there just yet.

Remember all the individual success this team had, too.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander thrilled us with virtuoso performances time and again this season, ending the regular season as one of only three players in the NBA to average more than 30 points a game. He’s in the MVP conversation and portends to be for many more years.

Williams continues his ascent, showing talent that will make him an All-Star soon. He probably won’t win Most Improved, but no player has made a bigger jump than Williams since he arrived on the scene from Santa Clara.

And Holmgren was a masterful rookie, not only going toe-to-toe with some gnarly big men but also playing all 82 games of the regular season.

Remember when the 7-foot string bean’s durability was questioned?

Those guys and so many others had big games, splendid highlights and unforgettable moments. Holmgren’s turnaround three at the buzzer to force overtime against the Warriors. Williams’ game-winning pull-up against the Spurs. SGA’s game-winning catch and shoot at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

All of that tiled up to a grand season made all the more spectacular when you consider where this bunch was only a couple of seasons ago.

“It means a little more how we got here for sure,” SGA said. “But at the end of the day, it’s home-court advantage for the first half of the … ”

He stopped himself.

“I guess until the Finals it would be,” he said, seemingly remembering that being the No. 1 seed means home-court advantage throughout the entire Western Conference playoffs, “and that’s always a plus, especially when your home court is like ours.”

Oh, geez. I guess there’s no stopping the talk about what’s coming next. The playoffs. The future.

And yet, there will come a day, regardless of what happens in the playoffs, when the Thunder hangs a banner in the Paycom Center rafters for its Northwest Division title. Five such banners, white with blue detailing, already hang in the north end arena, the last of which came eight years ago.

Winning the division was a big deal then, but in a year where the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the West are also in the Thunder’s division, it means a little more.

So, yes, the Thunder celebrated this success. Took the pictures. Wore the shirts.

And just because all of them didn’t wear a Northwest Division Champions shirt out of the arena, that doesn’t mean they aren’t proud.

“This leather jacket cost a lot,” Williams said.

He chuckled.

“I’ve got like four or five in my bag, though.”

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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