Game 2 of the 2012 Finals. Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference semifinals. Games 6 and 7 of the 2016 Western Conference finals. When you step back and think about it, the Thunder organization’s history has been defined by striving, furiously, without ever reaching the mountaintop.
Sunday afternoon’s 113-109 defeat at the hands of the Houston Rockets was the latest chapter, and few losses have stung as badly for the fan base.
In this case, victory was not just within the Thunder’s grasp, but rather firmly in grip before slipping out down the stretch. Any number of split-second coincidences could’ve changed the final outcome. As Al Pacino would say, “the inches we need [were] all around us.” Missed free throws, missed foul calls, and missteps reigned supreme.
When we look back at this game, we won’t remember that the first half was dreamlike once again, as Russell Westbrook recorded the fastest triple-double in NBA playoff history with 17-10-10 and just one turnover. Steven Adams rediscovering how dominant he could be and going a perfect 6/6 from the field. The defense’s incredible performance highlighted by 14 blocked shots.
We’ll never talk about how it carried over into the third quarter, as the team’s overall effort made up for Westbrook’s scoreless minutes and held the mighty Rockets to just 73 points heading into the final period. Andre Roberson won’t get credit for the masterful defense on James Harden, holding him to 5/16 from the field and 0/7 from three while limiting him to just seven free throw attempts for the game.
All we’ll remember is the fourth quarter meltdown. We’ll talk about Westbrook launching seven threes in the frame after just two attempts in the previous seven quarters. We’ll cite Norris Cole’s unfathomable minus-18 in just nine minutes of play. We’ll cry over Roberson’s 2/12 from the charity stripe, and Billy Donovan’s reluctance to take him out.
“How did this happen?” will be the question on every Thunder fan’s lips.
It comes down to identity.
The Rockets have a pretty simple answer to the question of “who are we?” They’re a run-n-gun team that emphasizes scoring a lot of points over defense and wants to take shots either from behind the arc or at the rim. Their roster construction, to their coaching staff, to their star James Harden, all center around the same central philosophy. Everyone is on the same page.
Who are the Oklahoma City Thunder?
There is no clear answer for that just yet. In the midst of a playoff series it’s easy to forget that it was a transition year for the team and the entire organization, but it has stood as a roadblock in every game.
When the game is flowing and everyone is playing free there’s no problem. Guys are running up and down, being aggressive on offense and defense, and pitching in however they can. It’s a beautiful, chaotic mess. Then playoff crunch time hits and the game completely changes. Each possession feels like the most important of the season, and everyone tenses up. Around Westbrook are four players who desperately want to help, but have no idea how.
Are we a defensive-minded grit-n-grind team or a fastbreaking speed demon? A team that plays small and shoots threes or one that plays big and dominates the glass?
In the course of a game we try on all of the various hats, though none seems to fit quite right. Versatility is a privilege afforded only to teams far more talented than the Thunder. This roster’s mix of skills is less a cornucopia and more a mosh pit.
The truth of the statement “Russell Westbrook has no supporting cast!” isn’t that every player on the roster is worthless, but rather that they’re too predictable. While a majority of the Thunder’s roster has one skill to hang their hat on, few have skill sets that are well-rounded enough to shoulder large responsibility. Having just one bankable skill isn’t as easily exposed in the regular season, but with the familiarity of the playoffs it becomes a harbinger of death.
When Billy Donovan makes a substitution, I’m not sure the reserves know what they’re being called on to do. While the Rockets’ short three-man bench of Nenê, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams provided a spark in Game 4 and ended plus-24, plus-18, and plus-10 respectively, the Thunder’s five reserves were all net negatives.
The closest thing to a guiding principle we have is Westbrook. He is the team identity. So when he gives the ball up in crunch time, seemingly every pass is met with a hurried return pass back to him. There’s a general sense of confusion around Thunder crunch time possessions that feels like the equivalent of a “what do I do with my hands” moment as you’re taking a picture. When someone else on the team takes a shot or tries to make a play, it just feels out of place.
In Game 5, the Thunder will likely look like an excellent team early, out-hustling and out-playing the Rockets. They may even build a lead, and that lead may even last until the third or fourth quarter.
But when Houston makes their run, which they will, and the game gets close in crunch time, the Thunder will need to figure out what their identity is if a win is in the cards.