The Oklahoma City Thunder wrapped up their series on Friday night, defeating the Houston Rockets on the road. While the outcome of the series is what we expected, the route they and we took to get there was anything but.
Before we leave this series behind and face the potential of a much more highly competitive series against the Grizzlies, let us take one last look back at the Rockets series so that we do not forget both where the Thunder nearly failed and ultimately what allowed them to succeed.
Let us turn to Eleanor Roosevelt, who gives us a wonderful framework to examine the outcome.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
Since we WTLC readers are an enlightened fandom infantry who will not be limited by one or the other, less the third, we're going to digest all three.
I. The People.
Russell Westbrook - This series will be known for two components, and the first one, the overriding impetus for how things played out, was Westbrook. Or, more specifically, the fact that Westbrook was lost for the remainder of the playoffs after injuring his meniscus in Game 2. What played out after the fact reflected a great deal about the mercurial Westbrook. For as much as his detractors love to throw darts at him (not that he cares), Westbrook's absence proved beyond shadow of a doubt that he is as valuable to the Thunder's championship aspirations as Durant. It is not only his play on the court, but the type of culture his personality imbues in the huddle, the locker room, and in the practice gym.
Many people have asked me over the past 2 years that if I had to choose between Westbrook and Harden, which one would I chose? That question has morphed into reality in this series, as Harden was playing for the competition. Harden had a solid series with good-great moments. Who would I take?
My answer is the same today as it has been from the beginning. Without hesitation, I take Westbrook 10 times out of 10. But why? Harden is the more efficient player, more compatible player, more low-key, etc. Those things matter, for sure. But they aren't the most important thing. The most important thing, when your aspiration is a championship, is a team leader who is willing to play within the depths of the hoops sociopath to bring for the desired result. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook. They're all cut from the same cloth. Don't you see that?
Kevin Durant - Durant is the other half of the equation, the 2nd component for how things turned out. For the first time in Durant's career, he was being asked to do everything on the court, not because he should aspire to, but because he needed to in order for OKC to advance. After blitzing Game 3, coming up just short in Game 4, and becoming disgusted in Game 5, Durant had his moment in Game 6. He found the right balance between forcing the issue (you know, the way Westbrook always does) and challenging his teammates to rise to the moment.
These playoffs will likely not end in a Title in OKC because the odds are heavily against. However, Durant still has the opportunity to learn something great about what it means to give himself over completely to the pursuit of a title. Failing, in this context, is a bad thing, but not the worst thing. In this opening series, his evolving play was enough.
Scott Brooks - Brooks was put on trial in this series like never before. Losing his emotional leader, Brooks had to reassemble his team on the fly to avoid succumbing to a historic collapse. The results were mixed. In Game 5, Brooks suffered through what might be his weakest coaching moment in his career. He seemingly lost faith in his own team, and there was very real concern whether his surrender might sink his young squad. His redirection in Game 6 was a powerful moment, but the evidence for Brooks' ability to adapt and improve is still undetermined.
James Harden - Harden, most notably, had a terrible 2012 Finals. These playoffs were his chance to alter that perception. While Harden played good a lot of the time but flawed the rest of the time, the most important thing is that he did not shy away from the moment like last season. Harden has to take his licks, just like Durant and Westbrook did in these past 2 seasons. It isn't fun, but it is the desire to weather the storm that gives the player confidence to keep attacking.
Even in Harden's weakened state by Game 6, he never stopped the pursuit, and that is perhaps the best thing he can take away from this learning experience of what it takes to be The Man.
II. The Events.
Game 1: The Thunder endured a season that was somehow considered 'shaky' despite the fact that they were the #1 seed and won 60 games in the West. Game 1 was a pronouncement that perhaps, perhaps, the Thunder had been holding back. Using a massive 2nd half burst, the knocked the Rockets off their feet and looked to be a dominant force opposite the Heat in the East.
Game 2: This game was more of the same as in Game 1...until it wasn't. The Rockets staged a huge comeback only to follow just short, and that to be sure was drama enough.
Unfortunately, the drama really occurred as a result of a seemingly harmless play, when Rockets guard Patrick Beverley ran into Russell Westbrook. Westbrook took the hit, screamed and hit the scorer's table, and soon after it was determined that Westbrook's string of consecutive games was broken when the Thunder revealed that he had a torn meniscus.
Game 3: With Westbrook out, the Thunder, and more specifically Durant, had to determine how they wanted this year to play out. Durant took the challenge and led his team to a 26 point lead, only to see it vanish in a hurry.
All hope seemed to be leaving the team as the Rockets surged ahead late in the 4th. However, Durant had one more trick up his sleeve, a 3-point bounce so ridiculous that a hand from the heavens had to have been involved. The shot went in, and OKC was on the cusp of a sweep.
Game 4: In this game, we really started to worry that the Thunder might be in trouble. Despite Harden's inauspicious double-double (featuring 10 turnovers) it was the Rockets that looked to be the aggressors. They had established a painful routine of exploding forth in the 3rd quarter, taking whatever advantages the Thunder had and rolling them asunder. By the time the end of the game rolled around, the Thunder needed Durant heroics to even have a shot at tying. Talented teams have a way of sticking around, however, until Serge Ibaka's last second shot stuck...and then rolled the wrong way.
Game 5: No matter that Game 4 didn't break, because here the Thunder were, back at home in Game 5, ready to close it out with a dominant performance.
As it turned out, not so much.
A shoddy performance on both ends of the court, combined with a lackluster crowd, produced a double-figure deficit late in the 4th when Scott Brooks made the highly unusual call to start intentionally fouling Omer Asik. Not only did Brooks misplay this strategy and watch it fail, but it sucked so much of the life out of the Thunder that even when the odds temporarily slipped into their favor (down only 6 with over 4 minutes to play) OKC could not generate any good offense to capitalize. It was a stomach-turning moment that sucked the life out of everyone. Suddenly, a 3-0 series lead was in jeopardy of turning into the worst collapse in NBA history.
Game 6: The Thunder (and to his credit, Brooks) responded with a huge gut-check game. After another poor start, the Thunder battled back in the 1st half to take the lead. Unfortunately for them, they still figured out how to screw up their momentum by playing another horrid stretch in the 3rd, and we all began to wonder if the wheels were finally coming off.
Durant responded by playing what might be the most important stretch of his young career. He took his team from 10 points down in the 3rd to a lead in the 4th that they would not relinquish. Durant made all of the necessary plays, set up his teammates (Jackson and Fisher in particular), and as the quarter and series ran out, we finally had a series win that took a bit too long and experienced a few too many doubts for comfort.
III. The Ideas.
Three themes developed over the course of this series.
1) How does a team deal with questionable judgment from management?
This season was largely defined by the Harden trade that happened days before the regular season began. Second guessing has never been far off. What if Harden had accepted the smaller contract? What if OKC had offered a max contract? What if OKC had decided not to trade Harden a year before they had to?
All of these questions underscore one thing - do we trust the Thunder management? We've trusted them this far, to draft Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Reggie Jackson, and as of late Perry Jones III. Is the above evidence enough to question the next decision they make?
To be clear, these are questions and challenges that are not unique to the Thunder. Yet because of the way this season unfolded, it certainly feels that way now.
2) How does a team deal with loss for the first time?
The Westbrook injury is the first major health setback this team has faced in its current form. Up until this point, the Thunder have been remarkably, almost miraculously, injury free. To be sure last season's Eric Maynor injury was felt and had ripple effects, but in this series, this was the first time we as fans were forced to question something that we never like to broach - the definition of the Thunder's window of opportunity.
We here it all the time from athletes - nothing is guaranteed. Westbrook is an athletic, dynamic, explosive force of nature. But nothing is guaranteed. Is he going to start to lose the ferocity that he once had, or is he going to lose some of the athleticism that, coupled with his energy, became something found in comic books?
This kind of loss represents a radical shift in a team's identity. Teams like the Celtics, Lakers, and Bulls have known it. Now OKC does too. Each season the Thunder have progressed, they have been forced to face their own limitations in the face of adversity. This time is no different, except now the hole in the team's fabric is the size of a 0.
3) How does a team deal with doubt?
One of the most threatening elements to a team and a player's psyche is his own sense of self-doubt. With the landscape of the West irreparably changed, how will the Thunder deal with doubt for the first time? They had the advantage against the Rockets of having a 3-0 lead. What happens if the series is tied? Or OKC is trailing?
So much and more to watch, so let us keep watching.