On Tuesday, the Oklahoma City Thunder played what was simultaneously going to be arguably their most important game of their season to date and what should have been one of their easiest. At 37-38, the Thunder had a chance to reach .500 and effectively take a two-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference with their tiebreaker factored in. All they needed to do was beat the lowly Charlotte Hornets at home, and to make things even easier, those Hornets were without four of their best players: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Mark Williams.
Yet when the final buzzer rang, the Hornets had defeated the Thunder, 137-134, and while their defeat could be attributed to any number of factors, there were certainly a few self-inflicted wounds that made the loss sting that much worse. All-Star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed the game due to an ankle injury he has largely been able to play through, and while it was not stated directly, that likely had to do with the fact that this was the first game of a back-to-back.
Gilgeous-Alexander has largely been held out of at least one game in back-to-backs recently aside from a Los Angeles double-header in which he played just 26 minutes in the first installment. Additionally, the Thunder used a 12-man rotation, effectively allowing third-stringers to decide the game in a critical stretch early in the fourth quarter.
The Thunder still have six games left on the schedule, and their play-in hopes are certainly still alive. But they took an unnecessary hit on Tuesday, and fans hoping to see their team reach the postseason weren't thrilled about it. Thunder coach Mark Daigneault stood firm after the game, however. He'd like to make the play-in, but he is not going to compromise his team's long-term vision to get there.
"I think if it is an outcome that is downstream of our process and the way that we're trying to do things it would be great because it would just be kind of a marker along the way, but it's not so important that it's gonna distract us from our way of doing things," Daigneault said of the play-in tournament. "We need to bet on that, day over day over day, we've done that for two or three years. That's what's put us in a position to compete for the play-in, so for us to abandon that at this point would be hasty, and quite frankly, we need to double-down on this mentality past this season. That's why we're doing what we're doing."
This is a lot of jargon (and we'd expect no less from the team that invented the position of "Director of Insight and Foresight"), but what it essentially boils down to is this: the Thunder are not going to change the way they operate for the sake of a play-in berth. They are going to continue to use deep rotations. They are going to sit Gilgeous-Alexander when they believe they need to (though the Thunder are, fortunately, out of back-to-backs). This is still a team fixated on process even if it comes at the expense of results.
That's not an unreasonable position. After all, it's fairly unlikely that a No. 10 seed leads to any sort of serious postseason run. But it's unusual in a league that typically prioritizes postseason appearances when possible. As nice as a higher draft pick and a bit of extra experience for the deep bench players would be, the experience even a single play-in game can grant tends to be beneficial. The Thunder haven't played a high-stakes game in years. If Tuesday was any indication, they aren't in any rush to change that.