WHICH TEAM WAS THE REAL OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER?
This article was part of VICE Sports’ 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
There’s a school of thought that’s popular mostly among people who don’t watch the NBA very much. Per this way of thinking, NBA games don’t matter until the last two minutes, and don’t matter at all if they’re being played during the regular season, because only a handful of teams are capable of winning the NBA Finals. You don’t have to watch a lot of basketball to know this is extremely dumb, but it is especially so if you actually like watching basketball.
In the course of the season’s first 82 games, 30 NBA teams gradually discover their personalities, figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, performing them, and attempting to fix them on the fly. By the end of the regular season, the fans, the media, opposing coaches and players, and everybody in the locker room mostly know who they are, what they do well, and what they don’t. The San Antonio Spurs are a well-oiled machine on both ends. The Portland Trail Blazers are nearly unguardable, but they themselves don’t guard that well. The Cleveland Cavaliers are either great or on the verge of self-destruction from moment to moment, and the line between the two is so thin that they might hop it multiple times in any given game. The Los Angeles Lakers don’t play defense, like not even a little bit. The Philadelphia 76ers are sad. It’s a long season, and this is all hard to miss by the end of it.
Over 82 games, the Oklahoma City Thunder told us who they were. They were a team with an elite offense—second-best in the league, behind only the historic Golden State Warriors—and a decidedly mediocre defense. The offense, as has been the case for much of the Kevin Durant–Russell Westbrook era, was not necessarily all that pretty to look at, but it was damn tough to stop. KD and Russ are difficult enough to deal with on their own, but these Thunder were also the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team. By a lot, too: the Thunder boarded 31.1 percent of their misses during the regular season, 4.1 percent more often than the next closest team—the largest gap between No. 1 and No. 2 in NBA history. The Thunder supported the Durant–Westbrook Pyrotechnic Experience with Steven Adams rim-rolls, Serge Ibaka pick-and-pops, Enes Kanter post-ups, and the occasional psychedelic Dion Waiters Game.
The defense was not nearly as sound. They finished the regular season ranked 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, outside the zone that typically denotes a true title contender. Over the second half of the season, they were even leakier—their 105.7 points per 100 possessions allowed would have tied them with the Milwaukee Bucks for 22nd in the league. Given how athletic and talented the team was, this defensive horror show was mostly weird. A team of long-armed super-athletes didn’t really generate much in the way of turnovers; dominant offensive rebounding didn’t quite carry over to the defensive glass. No team let its opponents attempt more shots in the restricted area than Oklahoma City, and it wasn’t all that close. Anyway, that was the regular season.
When you can see the outer boundaries of the universe, basically. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
But then, for about three weeks in the middle of the playoffs, the Thunder became something else entirely. From Game 2 of their second-round series against the Spurs through Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State, the Thunder had absolutely everything clicking. And when everything clicked, the Thunder were not just a formidable team but one that looked more or less unbeatable.
In those nine games, OKC yielded just 100.4 points per 100 possessions. In other words, they played the equivalent of top-three defense, against the NBA’s No. 1 and No. 3 offenses. In so doing, they held two offensive juggernauts to a collective 10.1 points below their regular season average.
Much of this was accomplished by Durant’s fleeting transformation into a 6’11” Draymond Green, switching every screen and roll and smothering ball-handlers from the three-point line to the rim. Westbrook played with as much control as he ever has in his NBA career. Andre Roberson broke out in a big way, living inside the jerseys of Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson for 25 to 30 minutes a night. Dion Fucking Waiters, of all people, woke up and started giving Shaun Livingston nightmares in the post. Enes Kanter, during the Spurs series, even raised his defense to a level approaching acceptable, which allowed Billy Donovan to keep him on the floor to feast on the other end. Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams swallowed everything the Warriors tried to throw at the rim, and more than held their own in switches against what might very well be the most dangerous backcourt in the history of the league.
And yet, for all this work, the offense stayed humming at its usual speed. Against the league’s No. 1 and No. 4 point-prevention units, the Thunder continued to play top-five offense. KD poured in 30 a night while Westbrook averaged around 27 points and 11 assists. Kanter and Adams ate the Spurs alive on the offensive glass, and then Adams and Ibaka did the same to the Warriors. Waiters Games somehow became Waiters’ norm. Even Roberson, previously a ganglier and less assertive Tony Allen, turned himself from a liability on offense into an asset, slicing through the defense with timely cuts and knocking down jumpers that he was suddenly willing to let fly. Roberson was nine of 16 from three from Game 6 against San Antonio through Game 4 against Golden State, after going 32 for 103 during the entire regular season.
All of which is to say that the Thunder, in reaching new heights, revealed themselves to be an entirely different team than the one we saw during the regular season. Even during the three straight defeats that ended their season, they still showed signs of being that team—they were that team for most of the first 45 minutes of Game 6, and for much of Game 7 as well, and mostly had the misfortune of playing this year’s Golden State Warriors during that stretch. And the Thunder might very well be that team in the future, provided Durant sticks around, which would in turn make them a very viable contender for the NBA championship. And yet they weren’t fully that team, or at least they were not yet far enough along in the process of becoming what that team to be able to escape the fate that so clearly awaited the team they were over those first 82 games. The Thunder showed us they could be great, in other words. They also showed us that they weren’t quite ready to be that.
When you push each other to be better, but also it’s still weird. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
If you have watched the Thunder, you know how that went. The offense bogged down with predictable isolations late in Game 6, a development that was compounded because those isolations didn’t start until very late in the shot clock, when it was too late to pursue other options. KD finished the fourth quarter one-for-seven with two turnovers. Westbrook didn’t fare much better, shooting two for seven and somehow turning it over four times in the final minute and a half as the Thunder’s lead slipped away. A sign of that old predictability: the rest of the team took only five shots combined in the final period.
In Game 7, the Thunder were utterly themselves, in all the worst possible ways. Westbrook tipped off the knife-edge on which he always plays and mostly flailed. Durant found himself at times unable to shake free of pressure defense to get the ball and put up his shot. Kanter’s defense rendered him mostly unplayable, especially when the Warriors went to their death lineup. Waiters’ jumpers stopped falling and Roberson regressed hard, missing all four of his threes and most everything else en route to finishing two for 11, to the point that he was passing up wide-open looks and drawing the ire of Durant.
More damningly, the defense that had become so impenetrable began to spring untimely leaks, especially on possessions where they had to switch multiple times. As a result, their smalls got beat back door by Draymond Green (Westbrook was repeatedly victimized); their bigs got beat off the dribble by Stephen Curry (eight of his 13 baskets in Game 7 were made over Ibaka or Adams); and everyone got beat by Klay Thompson from beyond the arc (he had 17 threes in two games).
There’s still reason for hope, though, because even the Thunder at their most unflatteringly Thunderous were in a position to win down the stretch in both games, against a Warriors team that won 73 goddamn games this year. Oklahoma City wouldn’t have lost Game 6 had they not let Thompson get hot late in the second quarter or again early in the fourth: he hit three triples in two minutes to help cut the halftime lead to five points, then nailed four more treys in the first seven minutes of the final period to keep things close before hitting the eventual game-winner with just over a minute to go. The same is true of Game 7, where a 13-point lead was trimmed to six over the final six minutes of the half on the strength of four Thompson three-pointers and a ridiculous full-court sprinting layup from Curry.
Since Game 7 ended, I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from late in the run of Mad Men: “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it—because we want them to be who we want them to be.”
For 82 games, the Thunder told us they were one thing. And then, for three giddy weeks, they told us they were something else entirely, and we had no choice but to believe them. We believed them not only because it looked like it was true—and because, in that moment, it was—but because we wanted it to be.
And who wouldn’t want to see the Thunder be the team that, however fleetingly, they so recently and electrifyingly were? The team OKC became for those three weeks was the monster everyone that cares about the NBA believed was lurking inside them all along, and it was thrilling to see that monster come out of the shadows. Stories about monsters generally involve the monster being taken out at the end. We know that. There is just also the tantalizing sense that we don’t yet know which of the stories that the Thunder told us was the truth.