By Leo Sepkowitz
No recent franchise completed its chemistry puzzle more efficiently than the Thunder, back when the team first arrived in Oklahoma. In short: They lost a ton of games in the late ‘00s and nailed the resulting picks. In a three-year span, they penciled in Kevin Durant (’07), Jeff Green (same), Russell Westbrook (’08), Serge Ibaka (same), and James Harden (’09).
That was the hard part. What remained practically settled itself, like a vertical crossword line naturally resolved by the stack of horizontal answers it intersects. Assorted niche veterans fit smoothly in OKC. The whole thing just worked. In 2012, Oklahoma City reached the Finals, where it lost in five to LeBron James and the Heat. Oddly, few months later, the team traded away Harden.
Put mildly, it was a weird time to admit—or even to suggest—that the Thunder were not on precisely the right road. Still, the team seemed likely to pace the West for years to come.
Sure enough, they are on the precipice of returning to the Finals. But things have hardly gone according to plan in the interim.
The past three seasons have been largely forgettable, littered with injuries and odd, sometimes secret distractions. Even when the Thunder were healthy, the type of clean, easy chemistry that had defined the team and franchise early on had seemingly deteriorated.
They won plenty of regular season games—60, 59, 45—but the whole thing felt different, like as if they were trying to recapture something that sort of only exists if you stop trying to capture it all the time.
The Harden trade lingered as an obvious mistake. (Recently, we learned that Westbrook and Durant did not care for guard Reggie Jackson, the former heir to Harden’s minutes.) People started wondering about coach Scott Brooks’ competence. (He was fired last year.) Ibaka, who averaged a league-best 3.7 blocks per game in ’11-12, began a bizarre defensive decline as he shouldered a larger offensive role (an uneasy development in its own right).
Most of all, the idea that Westbrook and Durant couldn’t thrive together hovered on a daily basis. After primetime losses (and sometimes after wins, too), those doubts would surface in the form of de facto NBA ombudsman Charles Barkley, wondering aloud why the duo can’t find proper balance, why Durant isn’t better, why Westbrook isn’t better, and why the whole franchise seems to be moving backward as their two stars enter their respective primes.
And then, about a month ago, OKC threw all the detritus that had been dragging them down for years right out the window. It was no longer a team full of superstars who were so set on leaving, ex-teammates joked about signing non-disclosure agreements about their impending free agency. It was instead a team full of superstars playing basketball.
The playoffs began, and, in a conference that features two of the greatest teams ever—the 73-win Warriors and the 67-win Spurs—the 55-win Thunder have so far reigned supreme. (Golden State and San Antonio were a combined 79-3 at home during the regular season; they are so far 2-3 against the Oklahoma City at home in the playoffs.)
The Thunder’s dominance of the Warriors is particularly stunning. OKC struck for 72 first-half points in each of the past two games. Durant’s been predictably great offensively, and fantastic on the other end as well. His block totals—three in consecutive games for the second time this season—don’t do his defensive work justice. Westbrook has double-doubled in each game this series, and has dropped 30+ in two straight.
An iso-into-questionable shot—a sad staple of the late Thunder, where the team stands around and watches its superstar jack 20-footers—has flared up but a few times, mainly in heat check moments. You are constantly aware of both Westbrook and Durant on the floor. That is like the simplest of concepts, but the duo has long struggled to master it.
As a byproduct, the team’s role players have excelled. Steven Adams is averaging a double-double for the postseason. Dion Waiters is making plays. Andre Roberson scored a season-high 17 on Tuesday night. Ibaka has done a nice job against Golden State’s infinite lineup combinations.
Most amazingly, the opposing Warriors look like a shell of themselves. They cannot keep up with the Thunder. Draymond Green has disappeared. The handful of wide-open looks that usually fall into the laps of Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Marreesse Speights do not exist. Klay Thompson caught fire for a moment during Game 4, but has otherwise been good-but-not-great. And Steph Curry, the twice reigning MVP, has been average.
Over the past two games, in Oklahoma City, Curry has made just 5/21 threes and tallied 8 assists versus 7 turnovers. (He shot roughly 45 percent from deep with a 2:1 ratio during the regular season.) Clearly, he hasn’t shot the ball well, but it’s not as if this is just an ill-timed regression to human being status. The Thunder defense has been suffocating in transition, beyond the arc, in the paint—everywhere.
Curry’s thirty-foot bombs, his signature, now feel slightly desperate—not so cool when they need to fall, and markedly less cool still when they hit back rim. The Warriors, in a jarring role reversal, look like a team trying to capture something that may have passed them by.
Watching it all go down has evoked like 60 percent awe and 40 percent relief, if you’re fan of OKC or parity, anyway. This always seemed possible—the Thunder are the only team who can reasonably claim to have two of the league’s best five players, after all. And, at long last, they are peaking. The obvious question: Why now?
Hard to say. But the answer may lie in a scene from the HBO comedy, Flight of the Conchords. There, a floundering band’s manager delivers a rare bit of good news: they’ve booked a gig. Unfortunately, one half of the two-man group can’t play the show—he’s found a job holding a hot dog sign on a Manhattan street corner. The manager asks, “What’s more important, the band or your job?” to which the singer responds, “I needed the job because there were no gigs.” The manager’s retort: “Well I’ve got you a gig, so what’s with the job?” The singer, again: “I got the job ‘cause there were no gigs, man. It’s a chicken-egg situation.”
There appears to be a chicken-egg situation unfolding in OKC. Durant and Westbrook are sharing the ball between each other and among their teammates more beautifully than ever before. The selfless play is producing points, which breeds more selflessness and, ultimately, more points. Such steady offense allows the Thunder to get set on defense—largely why Curry and Green are struggling. When Curry and Green struggle, so do Barnes, Iguodala, Speights, etc.—those guys rely on stars’ production to ignite their own.
Ipso-facto, because Durant and Westbrook are elevating each other, the Warriors are taking bad shots, and missing them, and the Thunder are grabbing long boards and running. Transition O with KD and Russ is easy money—another bucket, and then more controlling D, and so forth.
This is all age-old stuff—the tight relationship between different areas of the game—but, for the first time, the Thunder are flexing what they’ve always had. Their strengths are in motion, grooving at once, feeding into each other—a chicken-egg situation that has Oklahoma City on the brink of a title run for the ages. They’re not done yet, though—and in this case we know what comes first.