Down and out in Game 7: what happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder?
How did we get to this point? What went wrong for Oklahoma City that they could This kind of thing only happens to snakebitten franchises like the Clippers after all. Is it as simple as a flurry of three-pointers burying a Thunder team that forgot how to shoot from the perimeter? Or is it as absurd as from hip-hop star Lil B? My personal preference is to blame the curse — curses are fun, as long as you aren’t the one being cursed — but, if the supernatural really dictated professional sports, then I’d be out of a job. One tangible, decidedly non-magical moment encapsulated the Warriors’ journey from an insurmountable deficit to an unlikely victory.
With the game still within reach, but the clock ticking past two minutes, Stephen Curry dribbled the ball over and around each Thunder player on the court, and metaphorically speaking, through the entire state of Oklahoma. The OKC players stood watching, half-heartedly challenged him at mid-court, and refused to foul one of the best free throw shooters in the entire game of basketball. What did Steph do in the midst of these stone-footed giants? He buried a dagger three that ended the game, as he is wont to do on a regular basis.
In the proverbial staring contests that were Game 6 and Game 7 of this heartstopping series, the Thunder blinked late. With 5:48 left in Game 6, the Thunder had a seven-point lead. Three minutes later, Steph Curry hit a three to tie. By the end, OKC had lost by seven. In Game 7, the Warriors certainly hit more threes, but they stayed close or dominated every other statistical category too. They miraculously outrebounded the vaunted Thunder bigs who seemed to have had their way with Golden State all series, 56-54 – not a huge margin, but I’m sure Steve Kerr will take it. The Warriors turned the ball over 11 times – something Steve Kerr won’t take – but the Thunder were only able to get 10 points off those turnovers.
For much of the series, the Warriors were careless with the basketball., the Warriors turned the ball over 14 times. and an appalling . If a team wants to stop the Warriors, they have to make them pay for this tendency. Their love of the extra pass can be exploited, as it was in the second quarter of Game 6, when Curry, dribble penetrating off an offensive rebound, whipped a pass toward Klay Thompson in the corner that was easily intercepted by a streaking Kevin Durant. The Thunder confounded the Warriors like this often, but not often enough. They just weren’t able to make the shots necessary to break the champs.
Of Durant’s 10 makes in Game 7, only one of them came in the painted area. This will only intensify the familiar criticism that KD doesn’t use his superior size and length to punish smaller defenders inside. Russell Westbrook only made two shots for five points in the fourth quarter, which will dredge up his own alleged achilles heel – that he can’t be a true leader of a championship team. The media is poised to carve Russ and KD up during the summer, speculating about their future together, their free agency options, and who should be taking big shots at the end of the game. But this is a team sport, perhaps the most team-oriented sport there is. It’s less useful to point fingers at the superstars than it is to wonder what happened to the Thunder collectively.
My old boss Bill Simmons often talks about the body language test when analyzing huge games like this. How are the teams carrying themselves? Are they composed? Are they scrapping? Is the coach in command of the huddle or is he David Blatt, sweating furiously and mumbling to himself . It’s an old school bit of psychoanalyzing, but it works, without fail, to determine the viability of a team in a clutch moment if you know what you’re looking for.
The Thunder certainly failed the Simmons body language test. Even Reggie Miller, who has a reputation for being the NBA color commentator version of Mr Magoo, noticed the deflated postures of Oklahoma City. As the Warriors closed the half-time deficit with a 29-point third quarter, the Thunder found themselves jawing at each other in between possessions and during timeouts. The cheap fouls given up by Andre Roberson clearly rankled the rest of the team. Avoidable mistakes like Serge Ibaka’s foul on Steph Curry with 1:17 left in the fourth that put Curry on the line for three shots cost Oklahoma City dearly. Ibaka, not the best option to guard the fleet-footed MVP, got tangled up in Curry’s handle and the Golden State star had the presence of mind to go up for a three in order to draw the shooting foul. Those free throws turned a four-point game and a mini-run for OKC into a seven-point game that Golden State never surrendered. You could say that the length and size that powered the Thunder to the brink of the finals was, for a moment, their very undoing, but the faults here are mental.
Game 7s are curious creatures that cannot be easily understood. Game 7 of the 2010 NBA finals featured ugly shooting from both teams and a shambolic Kobe Bryant performance redeemed by timely makes from Pau Gasol and Ron Artest. Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semi-finals had a 25-point, 12-assist masterpiece from, of all people, Hedo Turkoglu that powered the Orlando Magic past the defending champion Boston Celtics. In the previous game, Turkoglu had a measly seven points and three assists. It was just Hedo’s time to shine, for whatever reason. Game 7 is mercurial and fickle, as otherworldly as a hip-hop curse. This is the third Game 7 for this Thunder team and their first defeat, so it cannot be said that they lack in experience.
What they seem to lack is the ideal chemistry and harmony that allows a team like the Warriors to rise above. How many times did Golden State seem dead? Who would have been shocked if the Thunder had kept their momentum after Westbrook’s late basket off Dion Waiters’ hail mary outlet pass in the second quarter? Oklahoma City, as they are today, might not be able to win a championship. Waiters is an unstable element on the court and routinely an offensive liability that teams are happy to leave open on his own personal island. Roberson is a personal foul made human. Enes Kanter saw limited minutes thanks to his poor defense and inability to play next to Steven Adams. Accuse Durant and Westbrook of lacking leadership abilities all you want, but they took a team with Randy Foye in their playoff rotation to the brink of a Western Conference championship.
It’s likely that Durant will re-sign for at least one more year, putting him on the same free agency cycle as Westbrook. With the Spurs in a transitional phase, the Clippers melting down like a faulty nuclear reactor, and the Warriors in the notoriously difficult third year of their run, they still have plenty of time to get a ring together. The onus is now on Oklahoma City’s front office, specifically GM Sam Presti, to get the pieces necessary to transform the Thunder from a good team with two transcendent superstars to a great team that plays together consistently. If that sounds like a complicated task, that’s because it is. It’s yet more indefinable, intangible sorcery in a game that only occasionally makes sense.