OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated Tuesday night in Portland in the same fashion the series began nine days ago — a made Damian Lillard thirty-plus footer — this time as time expired. As Paul George watched the Blazer’s point guard loft the shot at the buzzer, one thing was going through his mind.
“That’s a bad shot,” George said after the game. “I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a bad shot. He made it. That story won’t be told, but we’ll live with that.”
A bad shot?
Lillard was 10-for-18 on shots 30 feet or longer in the series. In Game 5 he was 4-of-6 from that distance. He had scored 47 points and was the sole reason Portland was remotely in this game.
George’s defensive response to a disappointing end to a disappointing season was that he wanted that dude to shoot that shot?
This is a perception problem. The Thunder’s inability to either accept reality in private or share responsibilities for a loss with the media in public is lacking. Time after time, they have swept losses under the rug for thought of the bigger picture. No loss was too damning. No poor stretch was too alarming.
Where does that come from? Leadership.
The Thunder’s leadership has failed them once again. When a team needs a calming voice or a game becomes tight and fundamentals become paramount, Oklahoma City is found lacking. The Thunder led by eight with a few minutes left tonight, only to surrender a 13-2 run. This ending is not a plot twist, rather a tired trope Thunder fans have become to all too familiar with.
They won’t tell you much about it. Their conduct on the floor only says so much since we don’t get to hear everything said by both sides. But you can compare the way OKC approached game after game with how Portland did.
“[Sunday night] we are not talking to nobody but ourselves,” Lillard said after Game 4. “Referees can call it how hey want to call it, we are just going to worry about ourselves.”
“Multiple times we had discussions about not saying anything to anyone,” C.J. McCollum said Sunday night. “If they do not have a black or gray jersey on, don’t talk to them. Talk to our team only. Don’t talk to the refs. Execute our game plan and let’s get out of here with a win.”
Compare that to the showboating of Game 3 from OKC. Compare that to the on-the-floor decisions/conduct by Russell Westbrook or George. The contrast between the Thunder and a team successfully navigating a playoff series is striking. With that acceptance, it should not surprise you that this team has yet to know the postseason after the first round since 2017.
This is the Oklahoma City Thunder we’ve come to know since Sam Presti brought George into the fold. A team with a lot of talent and bravado, but lacking of the integral parts that make up a consistent and reliable winning basketball squad.
Should we expect any different?
The crisis for Thunder fans is that they do expect different. With Westbrook, George and Steven Adams running the floor every night, the talent advantage typically falls in Oklahoma City’s favor. But time and time again, they have come up short. Often in embarrassing fashion.
“After Game 3, they were out there doing all these celebrations and we kept our composure,” Lillard said tonight. “That’s what they wanted to do after one win. What we wanted to do was win a series.”
If it is a leadership problem, where does the blame lie? If you can answer this question, what lies afterwards? Can the Thunder correct this and evolve as a team under evolving leadership? Roster changes and player development are one thing. Evolving a leadership that has become stubborn in their approach is another.
“Have I changed in 11 years?” Westbrook asked following a March 16th loss to Golden State.