Above the Noise: A Playoff Reality Check
Well, here we are, down 2-0 in a first-round series. And frankly, this playoff run is beginning to look all too familiar for our Thunder.
You can’t write a script more consistent for the Thunder: playoff disappointment after a season of unambiguous triumph. It happens every year. Last season it started with the collapse post-All-Star weekend, and ended in five games against the Blazers. The year before that it was the “Playoff P” fiasco, and Carmelo Anthony’s unwillingness to come off the bench. Six games to the Jazz. Before that, it was an anticlimactic first-round bout with James Harden after Russell Westbrook’s MVP season. Five games. And before that, it was a series loss to the rivals in the Bay, after being up 3-1. Only to have them poach our franchise player less than a month later.
Thunder fans know heartbreak
Heartbreak and Thunder playoff basketball are synonymous. Both are forever wed in the deep recesses of our minds, waiting for its horrific chance to rise to the surface. Each playoff loss provides an opportunity to relive the many that came before. Every win only provides momentary relief in a series of events that feel rooted in continuous shortcomings and dashed dreams.
This is, and has been Thunder playoff basketball for the past decade. And as the saying goes, as things change they manage to stay the same. Here, it is no different.
We can try to play the “well we weren’t even supposed to be here” game. I won’t, because we are here. And it is completely disingenuous to undercut how good of a basketball team the Thunder were in 2019-20 to justify this playoff debacle.
Yes, the “experts” said the Thunder had a .2% chance of making the playoffs, but we knew that wasn’t true. Coming into the season, we knew a team with Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schröder, Steven Adams, Chris Paul, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had too much talent to mail it in all year. And they proved that by going 12-5 in the month of January, and 7-3 in February. Right before the shutdown, the Thunder were 3-1 in the month of March. Now in August games that matter, the team is 4-6.
It prompts the question: What changed? And that specific question grows louder in every playoff game.
Now there is the obvious–the NBA bubble and no home-court advantage, but other teams have gotten going, so that is not convincing. There is also the fact that OKC’s players have been in and out of the lineup for various reasons. That does affect the team, but everyone is back, so that doesn’t answer the question as well as you would think. The Thunder have gotten good games from Chris Paul in game one, and SGA in game two; both guys have been mainstays for productive basketball, yet the Thunder still couldn’t win.
As things change, they tend to stay the same. And just like Thunder teams before, this one feels no different.
Same old, same old
Game 1 was excusable. The team didn’t have their primary on-ball defender in Lu Dort, and the combination of Terrance Ferguson, Andre Roberson, and Hamidou Diallo struggled to contain Harden at all.
Game 2 against the Rockets proved the maxim true. Changing pieces, same result. In a game where James Harden struggled for three quarters and Russell Westbrook didn’t play due to an injury, the Thunder lost, and lost convincingly.
Dort’s big body and physical play pushed Harden off his spots. His offensive capabilities forced Houston’s defense to guard five guys, and for the Thunder, this worked for half of the game. We saw better off-ball movement. SGA had space to create, and it was evident as he finished with 31 points on 53 percent field goal shooting. For a moment it looked like Billy Donovan and the team had figured out the recipe for success.
Then by some measure of bad luck and poor game management, Danuel House Jr. burned the Thunder in the second half.
Yet, the run didn’t surprise me–it felt expected.
The Thunder winning, and winning convincingly, felt more far-fetched than anything else. The entire game I was waiting for the anvil to drop. And it did in fact drop late in the third quarter. A 17-0 Houston run shut the door on the possibility of Oklahoma City evening the series.
Just like that, defeat snatched from the hands of victory. The most Thunder way to lose what felt like a must-win playoff game. And the moment that summarized the entire game was a late shot clock step-back three by Harden with a minute left in the fourth. Buried.
Where do we go from here?
Now what many will say is that its a long series, and yes that’s true. Yet, for a team to extend a series, winning one of the first two games is often paramount.
The Thunder didn’t do that, and to ask this Thunder team to win four of five after dropping the first two, is to ask James Harden to forget how to play basketball as he inches closer to Westbrook’s return.
It’s possible for Paul or Gallo to have a monster game and steal a game here or there, but winning the series now, feels distant. Westbrook is going to return, and the hill for the Thunder to climb will only get steeper.
It’s time for us to get real. We had a great regular season team, but in the playoffs, it’s always a different story.
On the bright side, it’s nothing new to us OKC fans. As things change, they always manage to stay the same.