Ah, to be in 2017 again.
Back then the biggest problems in our lives seemed to be three things: the Thunder’s three-point shooting, the Thunder’s free throw percentage, and – of course – Kevin Durant.
The 2017-18 NBA season was full of excitement. The Thunder had an interesting squad with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. It always felt like they were on the verge of breaking through as one of the Western Conference’s best teams – if they could get their act together and play as a cohesive unit. This season also had an all-time high animosity level because of the NBA’s great villain: the Golden State Warriors.
No night captured this hope for the Thunder – and hatred for the Warriors – better than November 22, 2017.
18,203 people were in attendance at Chesapeake Energy Arena that night, but seemingly everyone in the state of Oklahoma was watching in some capacity. This was the first time the Thunder played the Warriors this season and the previous year’s results didn’t go so well (0-4). But now, with the OK3 era in its early goings, the Thunder seemed well equipped to put up a battle against Durant and the Warriors.
And they didn’t disappoint. This game had everything a 2017 Thunder fan could want: an ESPN broadcast, dominant rebounding, a barrage of fast break points, a 26-point Thunder lead at one point and tempers flaring between Russ and KD.
The play that set up this heated moment was Westbrook at his finest.
There was 8:30 remaining in the third quarter and Oklahoma City was up 69-52. Stephen Curry was at the top of the key and looking to feed it to Klay Thompson for an open layup down low. Westbrook slapped Curry’s pass away, sprinted to the other end of the court and finished the drive with a layup and a drawn foul.
Mike Breen said it best after this play: “a Westbrook eruption here in the third.” This eruption was the tone the entire night, and would bother Durant soon after.
About a minute after this, Westbrook attempted to steal the ball from Durant, deflecting it out of bounds. Westbrook repeatedly shook his head demonstrably and within seconds, the former teammates were forehead to forehead and trading verbal jabs back and forth.
The officials, along with Paul George and Steven Adams, stepped in and broke the argument up, but not before Durant clapped in Westbrooks face. This squabble was petty, full of attitude and competitive – but every second of it was enjoyable.
The Thunder would eventually win the game 108-91, which showed many people what this team was capable of if they played on the same page. Sure the floor spacing and free throw issues were hard to ignore – and no team could have beat the Warriors in a 7 game series that year – but this team was a thing of beauty to watch on their best night.
In the grand scheme of things this game may not mean much, but it sticks out to me in the modern Thunder era as one of my favorites. The aggressive defense mixed in with impressive scoring in transition made the game so fast paced and satisfying.
An example of this came in the first quarter when Durant was driving in for a layup: Jerami Grant stepped down to the low block, swatted the ball perfectly to Westbrooks hands, then Westbrook dribbled in transition and passed to George for the wide open three.
In many ways this game could be an early form of Thunder fans learning to appreciate the underdog story. The 2019-20 Thunder played the underdog role most every night. Everyone wrote this team off before the season began, but they continued to produce despite these opinions.
In fact, the current Thunder play the same way that Westbrook described his own play after that November 2017 game:
“‘Why not?’ mindset, it’s my mentality, it’s what I live by, it’s what I stand by,” Westbrook said in a postgame interview that night. “Just coming out, giving it all I had and keep it at a high level.”