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    OKC Thunder look to move on from strange losing season

    May 18, 2021
    PHOTO: AP

    OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder finally can move on from the strangest of seasons.

    A franchise that had missed the playoffs just once in the previous 11 seasons finds itself in the draft lottery with a 22-50 record. It was the Thunder's worst finish since 2008-09, its first season after the move from Seattle.

    It was a revolving door full of trades, G-League call-ups and late-season additions — which created quite a set of challenges for first-year coach Mark Daigneault. Chesapeake Energy Arena, known as one of the loudest venues in the league, did not allow fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Daigneault said he didn't have set expectations going into the season — just an idea of what general manager Sam Presti wanted.

    "You've got to be where your feet are, and you've got to be fully in the moment that you're in," he said. "That's the only way that you're going to maximize that moment, and ultimately it's the only way you're going to put yourself in position to accomplish longer-term goals, whether you're a player or an organization, so that's what we're going to do."

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    Oklahoma City should get a high pick in this year's draft. And through a dizzying series of moves in recent years, the Thunder have stockpiled 18 first-round draft picks and 16 second-round picks over the next seven years.

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    In the meantime, Oklahoma City saw significant improvements from two of its young cornerstones, third-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and second-year guard Lu Dort.

    Gilgeous-Alexander led the team with 23.7 points and 5.9 assists per game. He shot 51 percent from the field and 42% on threes. He missed the last two months of the season with plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He said he feels better than he did a month ago, but he's not sure if he will help Canada qualify for the Olympics.

    "If I'm a hundred percent healthy, yes, I do (plan to play for Canada)," he said.

    Dort shed the label of being just a defensive stopper. In April, he averaged 24.4 points and 5.3 rebounds on 46% shooting from the field.

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    Gilgeous-Alexander said he loved watching Dort take advantage of being a primary scoring option.

    "Me being out and not being able to be on the floor with him for that period of time, I just tried to help him in any way I could," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "You guys saw what he did with it."

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    ROOKIES EMERGE

    Oklahoma City played rookies Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski extensively. Maledon started 49 games at point guard and averaged 10.1 points and 3.5 assists. Pokusevski averaged 8.2 points and 4.7 rebounds. Pokusevski, a 7-foot wing player from Serbia, closed the season by scoring a season-high 29 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

    HORFORD'S FUTURE

    Al Horford's outlook is unclear. The 34-year-old center has two years left on his deal. Oklahoma City sat him at midseason so other players could develop. The Thunder went 19-25 before sitting Horford and 3-25 afterward. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds on 45% shooting in 28 games and showed that he still can help a team win.

    He's not sure if a trade is in his future.

    "I'm sure after all this — usually I get away for a few weeks and things like that — I'm sure that I'll be talking with the team and we'll figure out what's best," Horford said.

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    MO BOARDS

    The Thunder saw enough potential in Moses Brown to award the former G-League player a multi-year deal. The 7-foot center averaged 8.6 points and 8.9 rebounds and tied a team record with 23 rebounds against the Boston Celtics earlier this season.

    DAIGNEAULT'S DEBUT

    The Thunder struggled in Daigneault's first year, but the 35-year-old coach left an impression on Horford.

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    "I was very impressed with Mark right from the beginning — his poise as a person, as a coach, commanding the locker room, that respect right away, and just leading our group, keeping us on edge, pushing us the right way," Horford said.

    BAZLEY CLIMBS

    Second-year forward Darius Bazley averaged 13.7 points and 7.2 rebounds and the 20-year-old said he's starting to find his way. He started all 55 games he played this season after mostly being a reserve last season.

    "I feel like I've really grown a lot as a player and a person," he said.

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    PHOTO: AP
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