Martin Rogers USA TODAY
Published 7:37 PM EDT Apr 1, 2019
Russell Westbrook doesn’t want to talk about it. Paul George thinks it is best kept in the locker room. Dennis Schroder just doesn’t know what’s wrong.
But the Oklahoma City Thunder had better come up with some answers soon to why things have gone so drastically south, because the team’s season, once full of promise, optimism and a possible MVP candidacy for George, is falling apart.
The only reason you might not have noticed is because there is a vortex separating the Western Conference’s playoff teams and the hapless brigade below, so the Thunder, 7-14 since Valentine’s Day, won’t have their hearts broken by missing the postseason.
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However, unless there is a serious form reversal there is also no chance of them doing a shred of damage once they get there.
“Next question,” Westbrook said after the team lost at home on Sunday to the Dallas Mavericks, owners of a dire 3-17 run going into the game, when asked why he thinks the Thunder have dipped so severely.
OK, how about a different question. How is this slump even possible?
Before Oklahoma City’s form faded, they sat just two games behind the second-place Denver Nuggets in February, and seemed to have every chance of overtaking them and collecting a prime playoff seed. George’s decision last summer to put his faith in the franchise — and his partnership with Westbrook — by spurning even a meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers, looked ever more justified and further progress was expected.
Instead, it has been a spiral. Barring a swift reversal of productivity over the next week, the Thunder are lined up for a first-round meeting with the Golden State Warriors, a tough enough opponent even for a team operating at full capacity and a total nightmare for one that is struggling to gel.
It has been a strange kind of demise, one buried beneath a pile of story lines that were both juicier and more immediate. The Lakers’ capitulation since the All-Star break had more superstar cach, given that it corresponded with LeBron James’ frustration and woes, while the Boston Celtics’ problems have been vocalized far more frequently.
The Thunder aren’t saying much. They’re just losing a lot.
“I think that’s amongst this locker room,” George responded when asked if the rough patch was sparking feelings of anger and frustration in the camp. Credit to him for keeping private business private, but it is clear something is seriously wrong for a team that has huge potential.
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“Everyone here believes in everyone,” Schroder said with a shrug. “We have just got to step up.”
It is the offense that needs to do the stepping. The Thunder are outstanding defensively, which is a worthy attribute in the playoffs, but they have also forgotten how to score, which isn’t. The MVP race became a two-horse affair between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden a good while back, and George’s offensive numbers have tailed off a little after a spectacular middle of the season. Steven Adams has arguably been overused and seems to have lost a step, while Westbrook racks up triple doubles for fun — but the stats say the Thunder win more when he shoots less.
The Thunder feel like they have been picked on by referees — George said he and his colleagues are repeatedly “scratched, clawed, held and shoved” — according to ESPN. Yet they shouldn’t expect the calls to get softer in the postseason, and here we are, seemingly from nowhere, where a team that had everything going for it now has no momentum to speak of.
Perhaps a meeting with the Warriors can serve as a wake-up call and a reminder of the need for cohesion on the court, not just collective mindedness away from it. A short while back Oklahoma City was seen as being one of very few teams capable of giving a challenge to Golden State. Now, its biggest challenge is getting out of its own way.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno.
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