clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

True believer: Billy Donovan's honesty and belief have the Thunder verging on an upset

Billy Donovan believes. So do his Thunder. And that has them a win away from vanquishing the mighty Spurs.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

OKLAHOMA CITY — Late in the fourth quarter of Game 4 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan wasn't pacing up and down the sideline with his suit jacket off. He wasn't frantically using hand signals that would confuse even third base coaches. As the game was nearing its climax, Donovan was standing in one spot near the end of the scorer's table, observing the game as it went by, one arm across his chest, his other hand touching his chin.

The person next to me leaned over: "Look at how intense Billy looks."

Without even turning to respond, I replied under my breath: "He's not crouching."


I remember my first Donovan presser. It was 2013. I was a senior at the University of Florida. As a telecom major on the sports broadcasting track, part of my duties for the year included picking up a beat to report on for the school's ESPN radio station on campus. Football was obviously the most popular one, but as a senior, I got first dibs and decided to cover basketball instead.

In my first week on the beat, I received an email from the station for the first media availability of the season. It was my job to get soundbites and quotes for the next day's radio show. So I put on a nice shirt and tie, grabbed a recorder and headed over — I would soon realize I was overdressed for a small media availability, but whatever.

When Donovan came out of the locker room, the dozen or so reporters flooded around him and wasted no time asking questions. As each went by, I waited to think of something clever. I couldn't ask him something stupid on my first availability. I had a few good ideas, but those questions ended up being asked by other reporters. But when SID Denver Parler asked "Any more for Coach Donovan?" I remained silent.

I didn't need to ask him a question myself. I already had my takeaway.

No, it wasn't how he was going to adapt to losing his top three scorers from last season, what kind of strategic moves he was going to have to make, or even how he was going to deal with Scottie Wilbekin not being with the team to start the season. My takeaway was simple: Honesty.

Donovan was honest with his team throughout the roller-coaster beginning to a 2013-14 season that turned out to be something historic. He was honest with his players about where they currently were and could be with each passing game, from a season opener in which their defense let North Florida come within eight points of the mighty Gators to preparation for the Final Four as the NCAA Tournament's top seed. It's that kind of honesty that held the team together through injuries, suspensions, and outside noise.

It's that kind of honesty that turned what could be into what was.


Donovan's presser following the Thunder's Game 3 loss was rife with criticism. The first of many questions was one criticizing the game plan, including a botched last possession in which his team needed a basket to stay alive, but took far too much time off the clock, and netted only a tough shot by Dion Waiters.

But it wasn't just the people inside the media room who were questioning the Thunder's coaching down the stretch. People from all over the Internet voiced their opinions on how Donovan-coached teams continue to play poorly when the game is close near the finish, a criticism so trenchant that Gainesville Sun writer Kevin Brockway's tweets on Donovan's record in games decided by five or fewer points have become a meme well-known by Gators fans.

But from all that I read and heard, one thing stood out to me the most about Donovan responding to the doubt. It wasn't his ability to spout out coaching knowledge to counter each attack. It was his honesty.

Donovan wasn't afraid to answer some of the reporters with an elaborate "I don't know." And he didn't mean "I have no idea how I'm going to fix this" kind of thing. He meant "The stats you're referencing only tell a small part of the story, and we'll have to go back to the tape and come to a conclusion after that."

It's honesty, not an all-knowing attitude, that makes me trust someone. In any facet of sports or life, if you can't take a good look at a situation and be blunt about what it is and what it can can be, both in limitations and potential, you're not going to get the best grasp on what that situation presents. Donovan knew he didn't have the exact answer right away, and he was comfortable with admitting that. He was also confident that he and his coaching staff would know what to do after going back to examine what hurt them.


The beginning of Game 4 played out much like the one before it, but there were a few things different for Oklahoma City. Steven Adams was more involved in the offense, Enes Kanter was stretching the floor, and Randy Foye was playing as the main substitute at point guard instead of Cameron Payne.

All of those small changes affected the bigger constants, though it's obviously arguable how much they enabled Kevin Durant to score 41 points, or helped Russell Westbrook, far removed from the UCLA freshman who scored two points off the bench against Donovan's Gators in the 2007 Final Four, to end the game with 14 points, 15 assists, seven rebounds, and three steals.

But Adams had 16 and 11 in Game 4, after just two points in Game 3. Kanter's presence ended up being huge for the Thunder down the stretch, though, as he snagged key offensive rebounds, and getting him involved early helped keep him in the game. Foye scored five points and was +6 in his nine minutes of play in Game 4, better than Payne's four points on seven shots, two turnovers, and +1 mark in his nine Game 3 minutes.

When the clock hit zero, it was arguably Donovan's little tweaks, as much as Durant and Westbrook's big contributions, that gave them their big win.


The Thunder took a similar philosophy into Game 5, and became the first team to beat San Antonio twice on their court this season. After going up 3-2 in the series, Thunder guard Dion Waiters had this to say of his head coach:

"Coach's doing a hell of a job, man, he's doing a hell of a job," Waiters said. "First year, everything happens so fast. We know that, but coaches adapt. ... He's just gotta continue doing what he's been doing for us, continue to lead us and we just go out there and try to get it done."

Donovan was honest about the things his team needed to do better following Game 3, but he was also honest about his confidence that they could make the necessary changes. The Thunder seem to fully trust their head coach to recognize what needs to change, and their head coach seems to believe his players will be able to effect that change.

That's not to say Donovan is promising his guys if they do this or that, they'll win the series for sure. That wouldn't be honest: He doesn't know for certain, his team only comprises half the players on the court, and the series so far has been one with wild swings of luck. But, he tells them -- and the media -- that if they do what they need to do each game, they'll always be in it. As we've seen three times this series, sometimes that's enough.

Will the Donovan-led Thunder knock off the mighty Spurs in Game 6 at home, or rally after a Game 6 loss for a third win in San Antonio this series? Will their best be enough in series beyond this one, against the mighty Warriors and red-hot Cavaliers, if they indeed advance?

Who knows? Billy Donovan doesn't.

But he believes he can get the most out of what he has.


When I pitched this story, I thought that I was going to write about the evolution of Billy Donovan, and how he's changed as a coach in his first year in the NBA to overcome adversity and challenges different from the ones he dealt with at Florida. Of course, when I asked Donovan about that following Game 4, instead of giving me a great quote to build a story around, he was honest with me: There are a few similarities, but you can't really compare the NBA with anything he's done in college; it's almost a different game.

Donovan has adapted to basketball's highest level in a few ways. With more mature men to lead and more finished players to deploy instead of develop, he's not as animated during the games anymore, with call-outs and in-game coaching lessons. He's not throwing his jacket off or doing his signature crouch near the front of the bench, things Gators fans became accustomed to during Billy's nearly 20 years in Gainesville.

Instead, he's realized that most of his job is done before and after the final buzzers, and that during the game, most of the result is out of his hands once the ball is tipped.

Unlike in college, it's much more on the players' shoulders that it is on his. The critics will continue to write of his late-game woes whenever the Thunder come up short or lose a lead at the end, and some of it certainly is deserved: It's his ship to captain and steer, and Donovan can find shoals instead of smooth sailing. But the plays that mean the most in the NBA are often already determined, drilled for hours or weeks or months, even before the game begins. At the end of the day, shots either fall or don't. Donovan is honest about that, and his players are, too.

Late into the night after Game 4, I tried to recall everything I'd observed over a weekend watching him and his team, and listened to my question to Donovan and his answer again. And I smirked. I thought I'd be writing a piece about how Donovan has changed, but from my perspective, the most important part about his transition from being a great college coach to becoming a great NBA coach was actually him staying true to himself.

I'm sure that was something Thunder general manager Sam Presti took note of the first time the two shook hands, at some point in a multi-year recruitment of Donovan that featured him frankly telling Florida beat reporters he didn't want to lie about the interest in the NBA that had never truly left him in the years after his week-long stint with the Orlando Magic. It's something that made changes like Donovan's rededication to Florida's defense both surprising, because of his constancy, and utterly predictable, because of his ability to X-ray his own coaching for defects.

Billy Donovan, at his core, is a man of truth and beliefs, even without considering the deep Catholic faith that has quietly been his bedrock in times of struggle that would break many. He makes decisions based on those tenets, and defends them with honesty, even when "I don't know" has to be his best answer.

True believers like him tend to be rare in sports, at either the collegiate or pro level. But, then, so are coaches who could pilot their teams to the precipice of a seismic upset in a first year on the job.

And Donovan is both.