It started with a party.
With the grand opening of Jones Assembly, an elegant music bar in a modern and developing area, and a new symbol of cultural and civic evolution in Oklahoma City, the Thunder greeted Paul George.
It was a low season coronation, a celebration of a return to Level 1 relevancy. It was the recovery and restoration of an abandoned contender, with George giving a second chance to an abandoned superstar and a disconsolate franchise. It was also the first day of George's one-year recruitment.
But the Thunder was not over. Two months later, fans gathered in the hot September sun in Oklahoma in a hangar at Will Rogers World Airport to watch Carmelo Anthony get off a private jet. Adding George was not enough. It had to be bigger. He had to be bolder.
Then, with the signing of Russell Westbrook still missing in a five-year contract extension, Sam Presti applied the full-court press. It was a team of submarines that had just added water, a payroll rebuilt a year after losing its cornerstone of the franchise. Westbrook signed a few weeks later. George said knowing the future of Westbrook would make his own free agency decision "easier." The list seemed stacked, and things were really good for the Thunder.
Then the season began.
From the beginning, everyone on the team warned against exaggerated reactions, as they anticipated a rugged road. Patience was preached at every opportunity. It was an assembly of stars that would take time to solve some things; It was necessary to prove and make mistakes. It was Westbrook, who came from an MVP season in which he set new records for the use index. It was George, who had lived life as the unquestionable alpha of a small-market franchise. And it was Anthony, who settled over New York and spent the last few seasons in a staring contest with the Knicks for the first time. I was going to take some time.
If you put a tone count on it, the phrase "decipher it" was pronounced two to three billion times. There was never any tangible panic, only fleeting moments of anxiety, like when Westbrook sat on the bench in Orlando after a bewildering 13-point loss to the Magic that knocked the team to 8-12, eyes burning holes in hardwood with a look blank.
The Thunder rebounded with a win in the next game and, against every wobble, it would win enough, especially against good teams, to validate its worth. Maybe in the end, however, that was the problem: never panicked.
WAS THE DAY after Game 3 in the inaugural round of the Thunder against the Utah Jazz and practice was ending at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City With ice packs on their knees, hoodies hanging around their heads and slides on their feet, Thunder players were moving near one of the tunnels while calls were being shouted for the first bus to leave. The conversation was heating up.
It was not a discussion or a debate, it was a challenge. Jerami Grant's eave of thunder began, suggesting that one of the team's athletic trainers should tattoo "Thug Life" on his stomach. Another player intervened and said he would put some money for that. Then, another player added more to the boat.
Carmelo Anthony finished an interview, came over to join the group and asked what was going on. Once he found out, he launched his own number to add to the stack. With each contribution, the cheers and screams erupted, and the coach walked around shaking his head. It is said that the final hole is close to six figures, although it is not clear how serious everything was.
"With George he went to free agency and the one-year draft is not going to plan a promise of sustained success, another the trial of Westbrook and the Thunder is coming."
The whole scene had the perfect configuration of a loose and confident team after a flat deflation in Game 3, with an enormously important Game 4 ahead the next night. The pressure might have been growing, but the Thunder were not sweating.
They lost Game 4 for 17.
Throughout the season, they desperately tried to stay together and stay positive. The sources within the team were inflexible throughout the season that chemistry was never a problem. The veterans marveled at the group's connectivity. All were aligned, everyone wanted the same. Even when the players adapted to the new roles and responsibilities, some had more difficulties than others, the acceptance was total.
Among the many problems they ended up with (adjustment, focus, consistency), some simply rested in arrogance. They lived in denial all season, until the end. After being hit in Game 4, he was explained with his missing shots and the Jazz getting hot. Prior to Game 5, Anthony forgot what time the game started, appearing in the sand as if he were bowing at 7 p.m. local time, instead of the scheduled start at 8:30. He walked down the hall to the Thunder locker room, looking nonchalantly and without seeing anyone, before realizing that he was there too early. He got in his car and left. They told themselves from the first day that they were a super team, but they existed as such only on paper.
If there was ever a moment of true panic button, it came in the fifth game when Jae Crowder hit a 3 to put the Jazz 25 with 8:34 to be played in the third quarter. For the first time, the Thunder really got scared. There was a true and purified sense of urgency for the first time all season. They were not good enough. They were something like panting, bad really. The switch "on" with which they dreamed all year came in the form of Westbrook and George becoming a two-headed monster that beat and overwhelmed the Jazz.
Even that night was complicated, however. Anthony was not so discreetly on the bench during the Thunder's 32-7 run to close the third quarter. He was seen begging assistant Mo Cheeks to come back, and finally got his wish with 7:58 in the fourth. It was not good or bad, it was just there, but after the Jazz attacked him with Donovan Mitchell passing in front of him twice, Billy Donovan sent him to the bench for the last two minutes.
And when entering Game 6, Donovan saw writing on the wall. The Thunder had at least rescued their dignity in Game 5, avoiding public embarrassment and full disclosure of every flaw they had, but Game 6 would be the test.
"Once the morning starts, everything will be over," Donovan said in front of the game on Friday the 6th. "We have to go back and do it again, and this has been the biggest challenge of this team, it is the consistency of power Go back to the next game and do it again and again, that's what it will take to continue advancing in the series. "
In Game 6, the heart and the effort were there. But it was the small print again for the Thunder: missing an opportunity to extend an advantage in the first half and fall behind double digits in the third when Donovan Mitchell erupted. Westbrook put on his cloak and faced Zero Ball completely, but not all wild jumpers were going to fall.
The Thunder really tried. They did not go to bed. But it was the habits, the focus, the margins, the ones that hit them again.
ON HIS FURY ROAD for the MVP award in 2016-17, much of the narrative surrounding Westbrook focused on so-called "help" – as in, Westbrook did not have much. Victor Oladipo was solid but nothing like the All-Star he showed this season with the Indiana Pacers. Steven Adams was good, but he did not make any jump with rival defenses that piled into the lane with each turn towards the basket.
Westbrook was voted the Most Valuable Player of the 2016-17 season for many reasons, but one of the strongest cases was based on what the middle letter represents – Westbrook's value was off the charts. Every minute he was off the court was a big problem for OKC, and everything had a bad run in a five-game loss in the first round against the Houston Rockets in 2017.
Help was added in a surprising way. , and produced the final result of … an exit of six games in the first round after one more victory in the regular season than in 2016-17.
There is some context, with the starting guard and the Defensive Player of the Year. The contender Andre Roberson lost the season in January, just as the Thunder began to roll. They had to reconfigure themselves and eventually hired Corey Brewer out of the shopping market as an interim resource.
The Thunder miss Roberson, but it's for all the reasons the Jazz cheerfully exposed in six games. He played on the sidelines, cleaning up the details that the Thunder so often took for granted. He made additional efforts, covered by defensive failures and fortuitous bets, and was the difference between a defensive rating of 97.6 and 107.1. Roberson's injury drastically changed the floor of the Thunder and its roof.
But even with his last 32 games of the regular season to solve it, the Thunder entered the playoffs as a wild card instead of something that resembled refinement. There was never a specific problem, but a series of isolates fluctuated on a given night. They could never cover the holes because they really did not know where the water came from. Against the Jazz, they finally ran out of life jackets.
It seems that the season is a referendum on someone. The office to take the big swing? Billy Donovan for never maximizing available talent? Westbrook for ruining the supposed help he had playing below his level in the postseason?
In the universe of the Thunder, Westbrook has its own orbit. Everything returns to him, fair or not. He spent the first month struggling too hard to fit in, playing uncomfortable and hesitant basketball. Then, at the urging of Anthony and George, Westbrook reestablished himself as the Alpha of Thunder. It became his formula of success, with the infernal competitiveness of Westbrook driving the bus while George, Anthony and Adams alternated in support.
Westbrook's paradox is that what makes it great is always what makes it fail. Play in a volume that few others can, but their mistakes are strong. His willingness to win sometimes extends to tunnel vision and a "if you want it to be well, do it yourself" mentality.
It's your worst enemy because you can not let go of the responsibility to win at all costs. He said he was going to lock [a Ricky Rubio] and he did it for the most part, but the collateral damage was four fouls in the first half that put his team in a tight spot.
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Westbrook is used to taking the blame. He was always the bad guy in the media speculation of a break between him and Kevin Durant in his formative years. He was the man who fired too much, gave him too much, was not a setter, and finally, that was the reason Durant left.
Westbrook seemed more comfortable last season as the unquestionable captain of the ship, free to shoot in unrestricted pull-up jumpers. But I wanted to make it work with George and Anthony, maybe too much on their own terms, because it still requires validation.
With George going to free agency and the one-year draft will not plan a promise of sustained top- End of success, comes another trial on Westbrook and Thunder.
The one-year big experiment did not work. But, and it is a great one but, it could also be the first year of an extended restoration project. George has repeatedly talked about "building" with this group, and even referred to it as "Year 1". Maybe the Thunder ends up coming clean after all.
Exchanges can be re-litigated in retrospect, but the Thunder would make the two dizzying moves they made last season 100 times out of 100. They have a transcendent star in Westbrook, and they aim to pay the promise of maximizing the best moment of his career. They have the opportunity to re-sign George, which is all they really wanted. They also have Anthony at age 34, with his $ 28 million player option that looks like an albatross, especially with a grotesque luxury tax bill ahead for a non-contender. It is a complicated future for the Thunder, whatever the path that follows.
For now, the issue at hand is addressed to George and his free agency. The Thunder and Westbrook have to convince him that there was more this season than it seemed. They can point to Game 5 and the snapshot of a brilliant peer-to-peer partnership to build something bigger. It's "like you were" for Thunder, back to the rocky waters of the unknown, waiting for another superstar to tell them where to go.