Facing elimination, there were clears signs that the Oklahoma City Thunder would once again be staring at the face of a first-round playoff exit.
Their inability to hit shots from beyond the arc combined with a unique ability to repeat the same set of mistakes were on display as Portland soundly defeated the Thunder 111-98. Russell Westbrook is a shadow of the player who won the 2016-17 MVP, and Paul George is proving (despite having shoulder issues) that the might be an 82 game player and not the 16 game player that playoff teams crave for. Supporting them is a cast of misfits that are from a long gone basketball era and the Thunder or on the verge of a third straight first-round playoff exit. Can the Thunder bounce back or will their legacy be defined by the words, "What if?"
Their defense ceiling should be the basis of a perennial contender in the Western Conference. Athletes that blend wingspan and tenacity should be able to generate an endless amount of turnovers and be the calling card of this franchise. It was the same mantra that took the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals in 2016 and was a game away from making the NBA Finals. The aftermath doesn't have to be ligitated once again - the next three games might end up as the defining week of this franchise.
Kevin Durant left, and his absence can still be felt. But George is an All-NBA caliber two-way wing who elevated himself into the MVP conversation. The soon to be 29-year-old is the best player that Westbrook has been paired with since he became the face of this franchise. Steven Adams is an absolute beast and a physical presence on both ends of the players. Jerami Grant growth is a testament of the Thunder's ability to develop two-way talent. The rest of the bench is as bad as it gets in the league. Patrick Patterson was the stretch-four that was promised but has yet to log a single minute in the playoffs so far. Raymond Felton is somehow playing more than just garbage time minutes. Nerlens Noel simply cannot stay on the floor in the modern NBA. Terrance Ferguson - the only other "shooter" in the Thunder's starting five - had a rough game four making only 1-7 shots from the field. Dennis Schroder was the single major acquisition of the summer is too inconsistent and inefficient to be relied upon. Westbrook and George have not been able to make up for the rosters blatant lapses, and they also have struggled so far.
George was meant to be the superstar that could elevate this team and for two-thirds of the regular season - he was that very man. The biggest what if of this season will be in regards to his shoulder. Maybe he could have taken his some of his regular season dominance up a notch for the postseason. Game 6 against Utah last season was a significant inditement on his status in the NBA, and the playoffs are once again proving to be too big a stage for Playoff P.
They are just symptoms of the real problem at hand. Russell Westbrook is the sole reason for why the Thunder has and will continue to be decent but not great. The denigration of his already shaky jump shot, declining athleticism, poor decision making has put a cap on their success. His best shooting season came when he ran solo and won the MVP shooting a meager 34.3% from beyond the arc. The future Hall-0f-Famer has undergone a significant decline this season, and the signs have been there ever since he turned pro. Shooting 5-21 in their Game 5 loss, things aren't going to get better as they return to Portland. Game 6 in Utah last season epitomized everything wrong in the way Westbrook approaches the game. One moment, he appears like the most dynamic player to ever grace the hardwood. The next, a player that can never be the face of contending side.
The reckless abandonment with which he plays basketball must keep Billy Donovan up at night. The turnovers and isolation play send the Thunder a chasm of lousy basketball. His ever-reliable jumper from the elbow has disappeared. And he vents his frustration by taking cheap shots at his opponents - something that has increasingly become a staple when he has graced the court this season.
Usually, the chaos the Thunder creates allows them to force turnovers and charge down the floor on the break. But when they inflict the chaos on themselves, it paints an ugly picture pull of inefficient shooting and poor execution.
Russell Westbrook will go down as one of the most dynamic and athletic players in basketball history. Whatever faults he may have, his MVP season was a sight to behold. But his highs match his lows. George is a shadow of himself for a second consecutive postseason, Billy Donovan is unlikely to be given the pink slip, and they have zero assets to trade. There are worse teams and situations than that of the Thunder. But whatever semblance of a jumper that Westbrook had has disappeared - maybe for good. A feasible solution to the Thunder's predicament is far from clear though their problems play out on a nightly basis.