Game 1 and Playoff P
The first-round match-up against the Utah Jazz began with such promise. The ingredients for Thunder success were all present — the OK3 combining for 80 points, the bench playing well (every bench player was a plus), no player was in foul trouble, and most notably, Paul George (and his playoff alter-ego Playoff P) was scorching.
It was everything we believed possible, with George flipping that metaphorical switch en route to 36 points on 13-20 shooting, including a magnificent 8-11 from three.
While the Game 1 performance by George was his high watermark of the series, PG was the Thunder’s most consistent player. George scored 30 or more points in three of the six games while being the only of the OK3 to shoot above 40 percent from the field.
Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, had a very disappointing series. Yes, in Games 5 and 6, he put on his superhero cape, but aside from those games, he was generally average. He shot just 37 percent from the field in Games 1-4 and couldn’t even score 20 points in Games 2 and 3. In Game 3, Westbrook was a no-show, scoring just 14 points on an abysmal 29 percent shooting with 8 turnovers.
The most disappointing thing, though, was not that Westbrook failed to play as well as we all expected. It was watching him single-handedly try to keep the Thunder alive in Game 6 when his supporting cast had consumed a cooler full of invisibility potion. Russ shot the ball 43 times, good enough to tie for third-most all-time in a playoff game and tied for 29th most in any NBA game ever. He also attempted 19 three-pointers, seventh most all-time in a single game and most ever in a playoff game.
And sure, some of those threes were reckless but they felt necessary — especially with Donovan Mitchell going nuclear. It almost worked, too, as the Thunder had a chance to tie with under a minute left.
So, in a year of quiet excellence, with Westbrook achieving another triple-double season largely under the radar, he refused to go out quietly. But it was too little, too late.
In the offseason, when rumors of a Carmelo Anthony trade began to gain steam, I questioned the move. Anthony had been an alpha player his entire career, and his style of play — lackluster defense, isolation offense, and a heavy dependence on mid-range jumpers — seemed counterintuitive to what the Thunder needed from its third option. But in the most important offseason in Thunder history at the time (remember, Westbrook hadn’t signed his contract yet), Sam Presti swung for the fences and landed a perennial All-Star for two bench guys (Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott).
Hope abounded. Carmelo’s scoring excellence could give the Thunder a three-headed monster that could be darn near impossible to defend, making Melo the ultimate X-Factor.
Looking back now, with the series against the Jazz as a microcosm of the season, Anthony was certainly an X-Factor… just not in the way we all hoped and imagined.
Anthony adapted. He took fewer isolation shots. He took more shots off a pass. He really gave admirable effort defensively. He even boxed out and furiously attacked the boards. But in a frightening similarity to the guy traded to get Melo (Kanter), despite Melo’s best efforts, his shortcomings made him almost unplayable in the playoffs.
So, our lasting image of Anthony is him feuding with Mo Cheeks, demanding to get back in the game during the Thunder’s amazing Game 5 comeback, as well as his unmistakable annoyance with being taken out of the game in the fourth quarter of Game 6.
And so it was, the Thunder’s X-Factor, finished the playoffs averaging 12 points on 38 percent shooting from the field, 21 percent from three, and 73 percent from the line. Over the entire series, when Melo was on the court the Thunder was outscored by 58 points — the team as a whole was outscored in total by 26 points.
A disclaimer before I delve into this topic: I firmly do not believe that the referees decided the series. However, fouls and foul trouble definitely played a role.
In each of the three-straight losses, the Thunder had a key player in foul trouble. In Game 2, Steven Adams was limited to just 22 minutes and fouled out. Again, in Game 3, Adams found himself in foul trouble and played just 26 minutes. And finally, in Game 4, Westbrook’s exuberance to shut down Ricky Rubio put him in foul trouble early. While only Adams fouled out (in Game 2), having a key player in foul trouble alters not just the strategy for when he’s off the court, but also when on the court, as the player cannot be as aggressive defensively (and in Westbrook’s case, offensively as well).
But speaking of fouls, multiple controversial calls in Game 6’s waning moments left Thunder fans exasperated. First, George was fouled by Ingles coming off a screen. George attempted a three in the process, but the officials confusingly called the foul on the floor (I’m still not sure about this one). Then, with 20 seconds to go, George pump fakes, gets Rudy Gobert to jump in the air, and trying to draw a foul, takes an awkward, off-balance three that doesn’t draw iron.
To compound the issue, after the no-call, several Thunder players stood around in disbelief, including Westbrook, with his hands outstretched. The Jazz were able to run an extra ten seconds off the clock, removing almost any possibility of a comeback.
There is a lot to unpack here and the human element in officiating is one of the most frustrating parts of sports, especially in a game like basketball, where a single call (or no-call) can have a disproportionate impact on the game. Worse, these calls are so open to interpretation that players cannot know when a call will or will not go their way.
Take the foul by Ingles with just over a minute left. The officials ruled that the foul occurred prior to the shot, but how did the continuation rule not come into play? Earlier in the game, Westbrook was fouled on a break and took no less than two steps before putting up his shot, and yet that was deemed a shooting foul. How come Ingles’s foul, a fraction of a second before George’s attempt, was not a shooting foul when in countless other situations, fouls occur well before an attempt and are considered shooting fouls due to continuation?
Then, with respect to the no-call on George’s shot attempt after getting Gobert in the air — that same type of play has resulted in a foul 1,243 times this season by my rough, made-up calculations. I think it’s totally justifiable the referees didn’t blow the whistle, the problem is the inconsistency in enforcement. I am quite certain that if that same play happened in the second quarter, the call is probably made. But a foul is a foul no matter the situation and the tendency for officials to swallow their whistles late in games makes fouls situational — an unfair and anti-competitive result.
On the flip side, however, you cannot put your season in the hands of the referees. The mistake George made was adjusting his shot to draw contact, making his attempt that much more difficult. He needed that shot and, by initiating contact, he had to take an awkward attempt that had little hope of dropping.
In an otherwise forgettable playoff series in a regrettable season, the comeback from 25 points down in the third quarter of Game 5 should be remembered. In a little more than eight minutes, the Thunder piled up 32 points and erased the 25-point deficit before the third quarter even ended — an astounding turnaround when many Thunder fans were ready to throw in the towel.
It was magical, breathtaking, shocking, and historical. While it was ultimately for nothing, it was still a special run.
While the Jazz proved themselves the better team, the Thunder could’ve, maybe should’ve, won this series. In Game 2, the Thunder held a 10-point lead but couldn’t drop the gut punch and lost. In Game 3, the Thunder held a 12-point lead and, yet again, blew the lead. In Game 6, the Thunder was 9 points up in the first half when points were in short supply but lost the elimination game.
And one more makes seven…
Going into next season, the Thunder has eight players under contract: Westbrook, Adams, Andre Roberson, Alex Abrines, Patrick Patterson, Kyle Singler, Terrance Ferguson, and Dakari Johnson. Key free agents (or potential free agents) include George, Anthony, Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, and Josh Huestis. Nick Collison is contemplating retirement.
All eyes, of course, will be on George. All season long, George has made encouraging comments about Oklahoma City, the Thunder, and his prospects of staying, PG stopped short of declaring his allegiance in his exit interview. He will probably go through the free agent dog and pony show but the Thunder had the benefit of a year-long courtship.
Unfortunately, the Thunder’s future hinges on George’s decision. OKC was given a rare opportunity to acquire an elite player in the prime of his career by trade. Alas, if George leaves, the odds of landing another difference maker of his caliber is probably somewhere less than slim and only slightly greater than none.
Anthony is also an interesting question mark. Melo holds a very valuable $28 million early termination option, which is almost certainly more than he could fetch on the open market by a considerable amount. Opting in guarantees him more money and it seemed like a foregone conclusion until his exit interview. In no uncertain terms, Anthony said he was willing to make a sacrifice for the sake of this year and adjust his game, but that he wasn’t interested in making any further sacrifices.
The thing is, Melo is a declining talent whose best days are behind him and, more importantly, his style of play is a relic of the past. If he stays with the Thunder, he absolutely has to make additional sacrifices, maybe even a bench role, to be a useful piece. Which means, Presti and Billy Donovan will either have to let Melo run amok, damaging whatever slight championship hopes might exist, or they could relegate him to the bench — which would likely lead to major chemistry issues.
Or Melo could just opt out and save us all the trouble.
That said, next season is a massive question mark, with this offseason yet again the biggest in Thunder history. If PG stays, the Thunder remains relevant and a potential force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference. If PG leaves, it’s hard to imagine the Thunder as anything more than a 45-win team, at best.
And with an early elimination, it will be a long wait.