OKLAHOMA CITY — It was supposed to be the kind of night that could jump-start the Oklahoma City Thunder. For a moment, it even appeared poetic.
On a night when the organization retired the jersey of Nick Collison, a prototypical glue-guy role player known for his charge-taking and backdoor bounce passing, the Thunder roared back in the fourth quarter to tie the Toronto Raptors on Russell Westbrook‘s streaking layup with 4.8 seconds left. The Raptors cleared out for Pascal Siakam on their final possession. He drove hard at the basket, but Dennis Schroder stepped in and took a charge.
The Thunder’s first possession of overtime was a scrappy grind, but eventually Steven Adams connected with Westbrook on a backcut near the baseline. Westbrook didn’t quite handle the pass and dropped it off to Jerami Grant, who couldn’t finish at the rim. With Paul George fouled out, the Raptors eventually scored the first nine points of overtime, with the Thunder’s first basket coming with just 31 seconds left as Toronto handed OKC a fourth straight loss, 123-114.
Once viewed among the elite in the Western Conference only a month ago, a couple injuries and a few other setbacks sent the Thunder sliding to eighth in the conference based on tiebreakers. If the playoffs were to start today — OKC does have 10 games remaining — the Thunder would draw the first-place Warriors in the opening round.
“I knew it was close,” George said. “We know if we win, where we’re at. We know when we lose, where we’re at. Going into the game, we control our destiny.”
George has said he checks the standings and watches the scoreboard some. After the game, he looked up and saw the Thunder were now eighth. At the All-Star break, they were 17 games over .500, third in the West. They’re 5-10 since the break, with two separate four-game losing streaks.
There’s some context there, like George’s shoulder injury that left OKC without its MVP candidate for three games and has obviously affected him some since coming back. Or Westbrook’s one-game suspension served against the Miami Heat on Monday, a game during which the Thunder clearly missed his explosive energy and playmaking.
But that’s a self-inflicted wound, a compromised position Westbrook created himself after accumulating 16 technical fouls this season. After avoiding the topic following the game on Monday with only “next question” responses, he skirted past taking any responsibility for it again on Wednesday morning.
It’s somewhat indicative of what ails the Thunder: There’s an understanding of what’s going wrong — such as going 15-of-29 as a team from the free throw line against the Raptors — but an inability to course correct. In spurts, they’re very good. But it comes out of desperation, such as the frantic comeback that forced overtime with a 32-18 fourth quarter.
Westbrook was brilliant with 42 points on 16-of-29 shooting (5-of-10 from 3-point territory). But with teams loading up on George, the Thunder’s auxiliary players, much like over the past month, didn’t produce.
Terrance Ferguson, a corner 3-point shooter for a couple months, has gone cold. Grant was badly outplayed by Siakam. Adams finished with four points and seven rebounds in 40 minutes. Schroder, an X factor off the bench, has played poorly since the All-Star break.
The locker room is still connected, still confident. It’s a very “process over results” approach the team takes, but results matter and the Thunder aren’t producing any lately. Thunder coach Billy Donovan keeps repeating that their tough schedule down the stretch is a good thing, that it will prepare them for the postseason and reveal flaws and issues that need correcting.
It’s also apparently costing them playoff seeding, home-court advantage in the opening round and maybe setting up a potential nightmare first-round matchup with the Warriors.
There’s time to fix it, time to string together some wins, climb back up the standings and carry momentum into the postseason. There’s an internal belief that in spite of the recent negative results, they are still the team that, as late as Jan. 5, was one game behind the West’s best record.
“We just need to play better,” George said Monday after losing to the Heat. “We just need to play better as a group. That’s it. We’re just gonna have to do that, period, going down the stretch, just playing better.”
George and the Thunder have 10 games to figure out how.