It started with a party.
With the grand opening of the Jones Assembly, a chic music bar in a hip, evolving area and a new symbol of Oklahoma City's cultural and civilian evolution, the thunder greeted Paul George
It was an off-season coronation a celebration of the return to Tier 1 relevance. It was the recovery and restoration of a lost candidate, with George giving a second chance to a shot down superstar and a broken franchise. It was also the first day of Georges year-old recruitment.
But the thunder was not finished yet. Two months later, fans gathered under the smoldering sun of Oklahoma in a hangar at Will Rogers World Airport to watch Carmelo Anthony on a private jet. Adding George was not enough of a swing. It had to be bigger. It had to be bolder.
Then, with the signature of Russell Westbrook, which is still missing on a five-year contract renewal, Sam Presti applied the full-court press. It was a Just-Add-Water superteam, a roster rebuilt a year after losing its franchise cornerstone. Westbrook signed a few weeks later. George said knowing Westbrook's future would make his own choice easier. The roster looked stacked, and things were really good for the thunder.
Then the season began.
From the beginning, everyone around the team warned against overreaction as they anticipated a bumpy path. Patience was preached at every opportunity. This was a collection of stars that would take time to find some things ̵
If you wanted to specify a pitch, the phrase "find out" was pronounced two to three billion times. There was never a tangible panic, only fleeting moments of fear, such as when Westbrook sat at the bottom of the bench in Orlando after a bewildering 13-point loss to the Magic who dropped the team to 8-12 and drilled holes in hardwood With a Blank Look
The Thunder rebounded in the next game with a win and, against every wobble, would win just enough against good teams to win. Maybe that was the problem in the end – they never panicked
It was the day after the third game in the Thunder's opening series against Utah Jazz, and the training took place at the Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. With ice packs on their knees, hooded sweaters wrapped around their heads and sliding on their feet, thunder players hovered near a tunnel as shouts of the first bus were shouted away. The conversation heated up.
It was not a dispute or a debate – it was a duty. Thunder Forward Jerami Grant started off by suggesting that one of the team's athletic coaches should have "Thug Life" tattooed on their tummy. Another player answered and said he would spend some money on it. Then another player added more.
Carmelo Anthony finished an interview, went to the group and asked what was going on. As soon as he found out, he threw out his own number to add to the pile. With each post, the cheers and screams erupted, and the coach walked around shaking his head. The last pot should be six digits, though it's not clear how serious it was.
"With George was about free agency and the one-year recruitment did not go according to plan, to achieve a sustained top-end success verdict on Westbrook and the thunder is coming."
The whole scene had the perfect lineup of a team that was laid back and confident after a 3-loss deflationary game, with a hugely important Match 4 the next night. The pressure could have developed, but the thunder did not sweat.
They lost Game 4 at 17.
Throughout the season, they desperately tried to stay together and stay positive. Sources within the team were relentless throughout the season that chemistry was never a problem. Veterans marveled at the connectivity of the group. Everyone was aligned, everyone wanted the same. Even as players got used to new roles and responsibilities, some had a harder time than others, the buy-in was total.
Among the many problems they had – fit, focus, consistency – some were only in hubris. They lived the whole season to the bitter end. After being beaten in Game 4, she was declared away with her missing recordings and the jazz got hot. Before Game 5, Anthony forgot what time the game started, and showed up in the arena as if it was pitching down at 7pm. local time instead of the scheduled 8:30 start. He walked down the aisle to the thunder locker room, casually looking around and seeing no one before he realized he was there too early. He got into his car and left. They said from the first day that they were a super team, but as such, they only existed on paper.
If there was ever a real panic button moment, it came in Game 5 when Jae Crowder hit a 3 to line up the jazz 25 with 8:34 left in the third quarter. For the first time, the thunder actually flipped out. For the first time throughout the season, there was a real, pure sense of urgency. They were not good enough. They were somehow, pant, bad really. The "on" switch they dreamed of year-round came in the form of Westbrook and George, who turned into a two-headed monster that overwhelmed and overwhelmed jazz.
Even this night, however, was complicated. Anthony was not as unremarkable on the bench during the Thunder 32-7 run to close the third quarter. He was seen asking the assistant Mo Cheeks to come back in and finally got his wish at 7:58 in the fourth. He was neither good nor bad – he was just there – but after the jazz had him drive past him twice with Donovan Mitchell, Billy Donovan took him for the last two minutes.
Donovan, who led in Game 6, saw the writing on the wall. The Thunder had at least saved her dignity in Game 5, avoiding public embarrassment and complete representation of all errors, but Game 6 would be the test.
"It will be over tomorrow when it starts tomorrow," said Donovan from Friday's Game 6. "We need to come back and do it again, and this was the biggest challenge for this team, the consequence is to come back to the next game and do it again and again and again and again, and that's needed to push the series further. "
In Game 6, the heart and the effort were there. But it was again the fine print for the Thunder: he missed the chance to build a lead in the first half and land behind Donovan Mitchell in the third set. Westbrook put on his cloak and completely engaged Zero Ball, but not every wild jumper would fall.
The thunder made a real attempt. They did not lie down. But it was the habits, the focus, the edges that made them beat again.
On his grumpy road to the MVP Award in 2016-17, much of the story about Westbrook was on so-called "help" – Westbrook did not have much of it. Victor Oladipo was solid but nothing near the all-star form he showed this season with the Indiana Pacers. Steven Adams was good, but did not jump, as the opposing defenses filled the alley with every single throw in the basket.
Westbrook was voted MVP 2016-17 for many reasons, but one of the strongest cases was built on what the middle letter stands for – Westbrook's value was off the charts. Every minute he lay on the floor was a big problem for OKC, and all of that came to a catastrophic head in a five-game, first round loss of Houston Rockets in 2017.
Help was added in eye-catching fashion and it produced the final result of … a six-game, first round exit after another regular season win as in 2016-17.
There is a connection with launching Shooting Guard and Defensive Player of the Year contender Andre Roberson lost for the season in January, just as the thunder began to roll. They had to reconfigure themselves and finally signed Corey Brewer as a stopgap from the buyout market.
The Thunder misses Roberson, but it's for all the reasons that jazz enthusiastically exposed in six games. He played on the edge and cleared away the details that the thunder so often took for granted. He made extra efforts covering defensive errors and random gambling, and was the difference between a defensive rating of 97.6 and 107.1. Robertson's injury dramatically changed both the floor and the roof of the thunder.
But even with their last 32 regular season games to figure it out, the thunder entered the playoffs as a wildcard rather than something reminiscent of refinement. There was never a specific problem, but a number of isolated ones fluctuated every night. They could never clog the holes because they did not know exactly where the water came from. The lifejackets finally got out against jazz.
It feels like the season is a referendum on someone. The front office for the big momentum? Billy Donovan, who never maximizes available talent? Westbrook for spoiling the supposed help he had by playing below standard in the postseason?
In the Thunder universe, Westbrook wears its own orbit. Everything comes back to him, fair or not. He spent the first month trying too hard to get it fit, and playing awkward and hesitant basketball. Then, at the urging of Anthony and George, Westbrook re-established itself as the Alpha of Thunder. It became their formula for success, with Westbrook's infernal competitiveness driving the bus while George, Anthony and Adams alternated in support.
The paradox of Westbrook is that what makes him great is always what makes him fail. He plays at a volume few others can, but his mistakes are loud. His will to win sometimes skips tunnel vision and a "if you want to do it right, do it yourself" mentality.
He is his own worst enemy, because he can not let go of the responsibility to win at any cost. He said he would shut down [Ricky Rubio] and he did so for the most part – but the collateral damage was four fouls in the first half that put his team in a bondage.
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Westbrook is used to bearing the blame. He was always the bad guy in the media speculating about a gap between him and Kevin Durant in their formative years. He was the guy who shot too much, turned it around too much, was not a point keeper, and eventually that was why Durant was leaving.
Westbrook appeared to be most comfortable last season as the ship's undisputed captain, firing freely on pull-up jumpers. But he wanted it to work out with George and Anthony, maybe too much on his own terms because he still needed confirmation.
With George it was about free agency and the one-year recruitment did not go according to plan. Stop the success, another judgment on Westbrook and the thunder comes.
The big one-year experiment did not prevail. But, and it's a big one, but it could also be the first year of an extended restoration project. George has repeatedly talked about "building" with this group, and he even pointed out that it's "Year 1". Maybe the thunder will finally come out of this cleaning.
trades can be retranslated afterwards, but the thunder would make both of the splashy moves they made 100 out of 100 last offseason. They have a transcendent star In Westbrook they want to deliver on the promise to maximize the peak of their career. You have a chance to re-sign George, which is all you ever really wanted. They also have Anthony at the age of 34, with his $ 28 million player option like an albatross, especially with a grotesque luxury tax bill ahead of a non-contender. It's a complicated future for the Thunder, however it runs.
For the moment the matter turns to George and his free agency. The Thunder and Westbrook must convince him that there's more to this season than you can see. You can refer to Game 5 and the snapshot of a brilliant peer-to-peer partnership to build something bigger. It is "as you were" for the thunder, back to the rocky waters of the unknown and waiting for another superstar to tell them where to go.