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Bulls coach Billy Donovan returns to an ‘odd’ homecoming in OKC

Before the Bulls pounced on Donovan in the shortened offseason, he spent five seasons coaching the Thunder. On Wednesday night, he returned to Oklahoma City and was filled with memories.

Returning to Oklahoma City felt a bit unusual for Bulls coach Billy Donovan.
Returning to Oklahoma City felt a bit unusual for Bulls coach Billy Donovan.
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The last time Bulls coach Billy Donovan stepped on the wooden court at Chesapeake Energy Arena, it was memorable.

Coaching the Thunder at the time, Donovan’s team was set to take on the visiting Jazz, but the sporting world was about to change that March 11 night.

Jazz big man Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the NBA to cancel that game, which triggered the domino effect that became a leaguewide shutdown.

Back after all those months and coaching a new team after five seasons with the Thunder, Donovan didn’t call it surreal, but it definitely felt strange to be back Wednesday.

“Well, it’s just a little bit odd because the arena doesn’t look the same because of no fans,’’ Donovan said on a Zoom call. “And I think the other thing that’s kind of interesting is the last time I was here was when the whole situation happened with the Utah Jazz, and the league [eventually] shut down. Oklahoma City has not played a home game since that time. Now here I am with the Bulls, and this is really their first game playing here at home since March.’’

The hope from his new organization is that Donovan has just as much success with the Bulls as he did with the Thunder.

Donovan made the playoffs all five seasons, and there was that epic 2015-16 Western Conference finals in which the Thunder had a 3-1 lead over the Warriors before Kevin Durant and Co. lost the last three games to blow the series.

The eventual breakup between Donovan and the Thunder happened at the end of last season, when the sides agreed to part ways.

The Bulls pounced on Donovan almost immediately, feeling he was by far the best candidate.

Throughout the entire process, however, Donovan has had nothing but nice things to say about his stint with the Thunder, and that didn’t change with Wednesday’s homecoming.

“It was good to see some different people, which was great,’’ Donovan said. “The arena, not only our place but every place, is going to be a little bit different. As I’ve said, I enjoyed my five years here; the people were terrific. I felt a lot of good and close relationships with a lot of people. I don’t know if it was surreal, but it was definitely different. It makes you think back and reflect on your time there; there’s no question about that.’’

Silent night

For the first time in three preseason games, there were no players with last-minute excused absences or new injuries for Donovan to report.

That was a good thing, considering the lack of depth the Bulls have been dealing with. They’ve been down six players since Sunday.

Devon Dotson, Adam Mokoka and Tomas Satoransky were left home as “excused absences,’’ which means they could be in the NBA coronavirus protocol or simply isolating because of contact tracing.

Guard Garrett Temple was the lone known Bull testing positive, and he was hoping to get back before the season opener next week.

Denzel Valentine (strained left hamstring) and Thad Young (left leg infection) also were close to returning.