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COLUMN: On the brink, at a crossroads, you name it, OKC is there and the season's in the balance

  • 3 min to read
THUNDER: On the brink, at a crossroads, you name it, OKC is there and the season's in the balance

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, right, reaches for the ball held by Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) during overtime of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.

It is hard to comprehend the place the Thunder find themselves.

Thursday night it was the Los Angeles Lakers’ turn to beat them on their home floor, in overtime, 138-128, making it five of six losses for a team that not long ago looked like it might be the class of the Western Conference.

Typical words and phrases for such moments do not appear adequate.

At a crossroads?

A tipping point?

It feels bigger than that.

Maybe, “on the brink.”

The season is in the balance. And if it tips the wrong way and harshly, other things could be, too.

Things like coach Billy Donovan’s job. Things like the years-long and fruitful partnership we all envisioned between Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

There’s no reason to believe they don’t remain best buddies. But if the season really does fall apart, and there’s nothing to show for the deck cleaning that was Carmelo Anthony’s departure, the once thought rabbit-out-of-the-hat pickup of Dennis Schroder, all the luxury tax still paid, despite Anthony’s leaving, to give George his max deal and Jerami Grant a very generous deal, not to mention the ballyhooed identity of playing fast but defending first, well … what?

Should the Thunder rip off 8 of 10 wins beginning Saturday afternoon at Philadelphia, the calamity described above comes back off the table.

At that point, perhaps, they’re back to jockeying for a better playoff seed, hoping to peak come the postseason.

Yet, right now?

Right now, they’re faced with having to stop bleeding what has become a torrent, threatening to make 2018-19 an utterly lost season, followed by an offseason that would have to respond to such a collapse.

The Thunder have played 44 games, and somehow remain in third place in the Western Conference with a 26-18 record.

That’s a long way from the .667 winning percentage they reached knocking off Sacramento on Dec. 19, or the dozen-over-.500 mark they reached topping Portland to get to 25-13 on Jan. 4.

Though in third, they are also just two games up on the tied-for-eighth Lakers and Utah Jazz.

They’re much closer to being out of the playoffs than overtaking Denver for the conference’s second spot.

They ought to be too good to continue falling so precipitously and yet epic failure is in play when a team has lost 5 of 6 games to opponents with a collective 120-132 record the moment they tipped against the Thunder.

It’s worse than that, actually, because while the Lakers were 24-21 entering Thursday, they were 4-7 in their previous 11, coinciding with LeBron James' unavailability.

The 76ers will hit the court with a 30-16 record, making it an easily losable game for Oklahoma City. After that, it’s off to Madison Square Garden to play the Knicks on Martin Luther King Day afternoon.

New York will carry a near-league-worst 10-34 mark into that one, but given the Thunder couldn’t handle Washington inside Chesapeake Energy Arena the night their slide began, they could totally lose that game, too.

It would seem Westbrook can’t shoot this poorly forever — he was 2 of 18 from inside the 3-point arc against the Lakers — yet it has lasted this long and if Donovan were to say he’s not concerned about it one more time, he might be the only one.

It would seem the Thunder’s still second-best-in-the-league defensive rating would dictate a snapping back to form, yet there can be no certainties when you’ve allowed 43.1 percent 3-point shooting and 84 trifectas in all over your last six games.

That’s where Donovan believes the issue lies, more than it lies on Oklahoma City’s pick and roll defense, which has been horrid of late, too.

“That’s all it comes down to,” he said after the Laker loss. “I know we talked the other day about pick-and-roll coverage. It’s not pick-and-roll coverage. … We have to defend the 3-point line at a really, really high level. That’s the whole thing.”

Maybe so.

After Philly and New York, Portland and New Orleans pay OKC a visit. If the Thunder can top the Knicks and win those next two back home, they can then really prove they’re back on track by beating Milwaukee, also at home, a week from Sunday.

The Bucks lead the East.

However, should OKC get beat by the Knicks, by Portland and the Bucks … well, what would mid-season panic look like from general manager Sam Presti?

Or, because Presti’s cooler than the proverbial cucumber, what action would be required to stop the bleeding?

Perhaps the same thing.

It would be warranted.

Maybe it won’t come to that.

Westbrook paraphrased MLK late Thursday night.

“The real measure of a man is where he stands in adversity,” he said. “When adversity hits, there’s nothing better, in my opinion, than to see how you act, to see how you do as a team, as a unit, as a man. So, I’m looking forward to it. Next road trip, next game.”

A long time ago, it appeared Oklahoma City might receive a karma dividend.

George stayed.

Westbrook threw a party.

Grant was signed, Carmelo dealt, Schroder picked up, everybody was happy and nobody was faking it.

Stories, convincing ones, have been written about how well this team gets along.

Yet, here the Thunder lie.

What’s happened their last six games is not acceptable, nor sustainable.

Nor does that mean it will stop.

Game 45

Oklahoma City at Philadelphia

Time: 2:30 p.m.

Place: Wells Fargo Center

Records: Thunder 26-18, 76ers 30-16

TV: ABC

Radio: WWLS-FM 98.1

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