Photo Credits: Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports
Throughout the 2020-21 season, NBA franchises were vigilant in reopening their arenas to the public. Month-by-month, week-by-week, and day-by-day, teams began to trickle fans back into their arenas for home games. By the end of the season, all but one team had reopened the gates, the one exception — the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder organization, alongside all 29 other NBA franchises, are slated to admit the general public back into their home arenas. For the Thunder, their year-long attendance drought dating back to March 11, 2020 is set to come to an end, and with 41 home games on the menu — the Paycom Center will have an eventful inaugural season.
Here are the top five home games to keep on your schedule:
5. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets | November 17, 2021
The firework show enters the Paycom Center early this season as the Houston Rockets will strut into town for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s eighth home game of the year. The Thunder and Rockets have been adjoined by an on-and-off rivalry stemming from the James Harden trade in 2012, being accelerated by Patrick Beverley’s strike towards Russell Westbrook in 2013, and being stabilized by all other playoff meetings that ensued. This rivalry looked to be reaching a mutual parting with the Thunder’s roster renovation last offseason, but flare-ups between Houston and their stars kicked themselves back into reboot mode — and in competition with the Thunder.
The Rockets hit center court with the services of 2nd overall pick in Jalen Green, and the 16th overall pick in Alperen Sengun. On the surface, neither Green nor Sengun should garner much attention from the Thunder fanbase, but a hectic offseason will keep both of these players running through fans’ bloodstreams. Green, a standout guard with the G-League Ignite, had been tacked onto Houston’s roster through some draft-day shenanigans, but had the Rockets slipped to the sixth pick (47.9 percent chance), Oklahoma City would’ve been at the podium. In regards to the 16th pick in Alperen Sengun, the Turkish big took to the podium, and his media conferences, topped with a Thunder hat as a draft-day deal, sent Sengun from Oklahoma City to Houston in exchange for two future first-round picks.
For fans, this game, win or lose, will be jam packed with “what if” scenarios following the buzzer. On the Thunder’s side, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will have the opportunity to silence Houston’s rising star in Jalen Green, while number six pick Josh Giddey will have the greenlight to prove his worth. To top this, this game has the potential to divulge into an old-fashioned tank game, reminiscent of that of last year. If that is the case, expect some surprising names to headline the box score.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Detroit Pistons | April 1, 2022
After a one-and-done season playing for Oklahoma State, Cade Cunningham is set to make his homecoming to Oklahoma after a long and suspenseful wait. Cunningham’s return marks the one and only Thunder-Pistons home game to be played next season, and will take place on the Thunder’s 77th regular-season game.
For those content with the wait time, this will be a can’t miss contest.
By the time the Thunder and Pistons are set to lace up, we’ll know what kind of player Cade Cunningham truly is at the next level. As a 6-foot-8 point guard, Cunningham kept college basketball under the grip of his thumb, dominating as a finisher, playmaker, and sharpshooter for the Cowboys. Now in the big leagues, Cunningham’s matchup would pit himself against another lengthy guard in 6-foot-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
As for other matchups, Detroit’s flurry of young talent gives way for rookies and otherwise bench pieces a firm bid in flirting with major minutes.
This game presents a golden ticket for Oklahoma State fans around the area. Unlike the majority of contests listed, purchasing a seat for Cunningham’s return offers a penny pincher’s paradise as entry to the game comes at less than $20.,
3. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors | February 22, 2022
Whatever your most recent memory between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors, do not dwell on it. Entering the Thunder’s upcoming matchup versus the Warriors, the stage is set for a low-risk, high-reward game on the Thunder’s side.
Golden State will hit the Paycom Center with the much anticipated return of Splash Brothers in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. In retaliation, the Oklahoma City Thunder will have the opportunity to call checkmate. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander going toe-to-toe with Steph Curry wields the biggest headline entering the contest as their high-pace play could flip the game into 48 minutes of H-O-R-S-E if they both hit their strides. As for Shai’s partner, Lu Dort has the chance to become the story of the game as the 22-year-old will have the chance to deploy his perimeter prominence on defense against arguably two of the greatest shooters of all time in Steph and Klay.
As a side mission for the night, both sides’ rookies pose a talking point that even on its own could’ve wiggled it’s way onto the list. When Adam Silver called out Josh Giddey’s name on draft night, many were disappointed, instead locking their crosshairs onto forward Jonathan Kuminga for Oklahoma City’s sixth pick. Instead, Kuminga fell into Golden State’s lap at the seventh pick. Giddey and Kuminga could very well become defensive matchups based on their current builds, and the crafty playmaking and ball-handling of Giddey clashing with Kuminga’s ferocity both slashing and defending could push this game to another dimension. As an extra token, the guard matchup between rookies Tre Mann and Moses Moody may also maintain a lengthy relationship.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Brooklyn Nets | November 14, 2021
For those looking to take the entire family for a Thunder game — parental advisory may need to be advised for Oklahoma City’s match versus Brooklyn.
Though tensions among parties have dwindled as of late, everyone remembers what took place July 4, 2016. Due to no in-person attendance, Kevin Durant dodged his Brooklyn Nets honeymoon last season in the ‘Peake, now coined the Paycom Center, Durant is set to make his Nets debut on Oklahoma City grounds. As another storyline for the contest, James Harden is also set to make his Nets debut in Bricktown since being traded from Houston last season. In a trifecta of events, Kyrie Irving solidifies a star studded trio to face off against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and company.
This game provides a major proving ground for 23-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the fourth-year guard will undoubtedly wield the sword in efforts to slay the Nets’ trio. Shai stepped up big in his breakout campaign as the first option, but an offensive explosion from the Kentucky product would instantly bring his game to the national stage. For sophomore Theo Maledon, he spread his wings last season against the Nets to post 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting while sinking 6-of-6 threes. As Maledon’s sophomore counterpart, Aleksej Pokusevski will be placed in a fan favorite 7-footer battle against Kevin Durant. Make-or-miss fans will leave this game happy off a handful of Poku-Durant possessions.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers | October 27, 2021
If you missed out on Russell Westbrook’s original return to Thunder territory, you’ll have another chance. This time, however, there are some major incentives sprinkled in.
Russell Westbrook took a one-year hiatus from matching up with Thunder fans as last year’s regulations ousted him from a return, but specifically one in a Wizards’ jersey. Following an offseason blockbuster that sent Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers, Westbrook is back in the West — but he’s also joined by some heavy artillery. After injuries kept the Lakers from title contention last season, 36-year-old LeBron James is on the hunt to bring the Larry O’ Brien trophy back to Los Angeles. For fans, this game, barring injuries, provides the chance to watch one of the greatest to ever play, while also tagging along with the most beloved player in Thunder history. To make this night even more of one to remember, Anthony Davis completes a triangle of stars with his Hollywood co-stars.
This game comes at a rate all other games simply cannot meet. The return of Russell Westbrook has become a must-see around Oklahoma City, but an appearance from the King adds an extra layer. If the Thunder reach their full potential in the contest, it sets the table for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to clash with Russell Westbrook in a new era versus new era battle. Though the on paper rosters should give the Lakers an easy victory, the Thunder kept things close in their final two meetings last year. In a February baseball set, the Lakers squeaked by the Thunder in two-consecutive overtime games in which Shai Gilgeous-Alexander recorded 29 points, 7 rebounds, and 10 assists in game one while Lu Dort placed 17 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and a clutch-time stop against LeBron James in game two.
If a Wednesday night contest doesn’t tickle your fancy, Westbrook landing in the West brings an insurance policy. Los Angeles will return to the Paycom Center for a prime time spot on Friday, December 10.